Why socialists do what we do

Submitted by martin on 5 September, 2012 - 8:03

What are we for? For what overall defining purpose do revolutionary socialist organisations labour to raise funds, recruit members, publish and sell literature, organise meetings, and so on?

The Australian socialist group Socialist Alternative tried to answer these questions directly in an article in its July 2012 issue, "The case for a revolutionary socialist party", by Diane Fieldes.

The effort deserves close attention. Socialist Alternative is now probably the strongest revolutionary socialist group in Australia; it used to be much smaller than the ISO (now Solidarity) or the Democratic Socialist Party (now Socialist Alliance) but has outstripped them. It claims allegiance to the same tradition as the SWP in Britain; but is an "unofficial" or "dissident" group in that spectrum, and has published thoughtful critiques of the SWP on such issues as the Respect debacle.

Socialist Alternative has grown, above all, by being the group best focused on the basics of making itself visible: organising public meetings, distributing posters and flyers for them, running stalls, selling its magazine. It deserves credit for that, and the rest of us can learn from it.

Fieldes says that the "key reasons" for building a revolutionary socialist organisation are "two facts": "the unevenness and contradictions in workers' ideas, and the existence of competing ideas about what to do and how to win in any struggle".

This seems too general to be useful. If everybody, or all workers, had the same ideas, then there wouldn't even be anyone to pose the question of whether to organise a separate revolutionary socialist organisation, let alone an answer to the question. And the "two facts" are really just one fact: people have different and therefore competing ideas about things, including about how to pursue struggles.

After paragraphs noting that some people reject all parties because of experience of bad parties (Stalinist or reformist), Fieldes becomes more specific.

"Every struggle, no matter how small, brings those competing ideas into conflict. Should we go on strike and picket our workplace, or should we take a case to Fair Work Australia [official industrial conciliation] to get a wage rise? Should we rely on the election of the Australian Labor Party to end WorkChoices [the vicious anti-union law introduced by the previous conservative government] or should we build mass strikes against the law? Is a mobilisation in the squares enough to bring down Mubarak or do we need strikes against the regime, and so on".

One set of competing ideas, Fieldes continues, is promoted in an organised way by Labor and union leaders, namely, "ideas of change from above... looking to parliament... trying to capture union positions, doing bureaucratic deals or influencing 'important' people".

She assumes, no doubt fairly, that her readers will see those ideas as inadequate. Therefore, counter-organisation is needed, by those who will favour striking and picketing, or, more generally, "change by the mass of workers and the oppressed standing up and fighting back" or "mass mobilisation from below".

"A revolutionary party needs to unite the most radical", she concludes. "Most radical" here is implicitly defined as those who favour the widest and most militant action.

Far from indicating a rational long-term defining purpose for the work of building revolutionary socialist organisations - which has gone on through ups and downs for about 200 years now, and may have to go on for many decades longer - Fieldes' formula offers only a snapshot of Socialist Alternative's picture of itself.

It goes to struggles, and in each one it becomes the organised force arguing against Labor and union leaders for more militant tactics.

Of course revolutionary socialists generally argue for more militant tactics. But Fieldes' snapshot cannot be an adequate statement of the long-term defining purpose of revolutionary socialist organisations. It says nothing about the aims of the struggles in question, but only about better or worse tactics towards those aims!

In conditions where a revolutionary socialist organisation is stronger than the reformist organisations, and where workers generally and instinctively go for strikes rather than wait-and-see once a battle is underway - that is, where a revolutionary organisation could really come into its own - Fieldes' snapshot formula would give the revolutionary organisation almost nothing to do.

Revolutionary socialist organisations cannot generally make workers more militant just by exhortation. Where revolutionary socialists establish themselves as trusted workplace leaders, the fact of trustworthy leadership will increase workers' confidence, and may enable the socialists in some cases to swing opinion against submission and towards a militant response. I doubt that external appeals to workers to be more militant, from outside the workplace (which I fear is mostly what Socialist Alternative has in mind), do much good.

On the other hand, even small socialist organisations which work well can change opinion on big ideological questions through a process of cascading whereby first the most active and interested are convinced, then they transmit ideas to others, and so on.

In times of big militant class struggle socialists may be able to make more progress on that in a day than in years of previous quiet. But to do that they must already know their basic ideas well enough to "think on their feet"; be organised to promote them; trained to explain it clearly; and well-placed to get a hearing. And they must at least have started to put the ideas round, so that for many workers it will be a matter of ideas they'd heard, but which previously seemed abstruse and extreme, now suddenly making sense.

The process demands some conformity of the ideas which are to be spread with reality. But only some: Stalinist ideas were spread fairly widely in many countries by relatively small groups. There is no automatic self-correction mechanism which ensures that the socialistic ideas which are spread by socialist groups are either enlightening or accurate, or fail to spread: the socialist groups themselves have to "check", by study and debate.

Of course Socialist Alternative has an aim as well as a preference for militancy. The aim is set out, albeit sloppily, in a "What We Stand For" in every issue of the magazine: "a world in which the workers who create all the wealth democratically decide what and how much our society needs, rather than decisions being determined by the pursuit of profit".

Fieldes' article, however, shows that in Socialist Alternative's own picture of its own day-to-day activity is connected to that aim only via the apparent assumption that more militancy about tactics will lead to seeing a democratic worker-controlled economy as the general aim, and the general thought that making the organisation bigger helps. Look after the militancy, and the aims will look after themselves?

Fieldes' pivotal paragraph evades the question of the aims of struggle in three ways.

First, it assumes that the only struggles which come around are those which socialists should support, or that there is no difficulty about seeing which struggles to support and which not to support.

But campaigns against abortion rights, against a carbon tax, for "local workers first", or "to boycott Israel", may be sizeable, and even involve many workers, yet be unsuitable to support. Socialists cannot just jump into struggles, ignore the question of aims, and busy themselves only with arguing for more militant tactics.

Second, when it deals with struggles which socialists should support, it downplays the arguments which exist within those struggles about exactly what their aims should be.

To take Fieldes' examples: if it's a struggle for a wage rise, should the claim be for an equal wage rise for all, or for higher wages for workers already in post and lower wages for new hires? Should workers trade conditions for wage rises, or should they regard hours and conditions as fundamental?

When campaigning against WorkChoices, is our aim to return to the status quo before WorkChoices, or should we (as Workers' Liberty argued in that campaign) fight for a positive charter of workers' rights to organise, to bargain, and to strike?

In a mobilisation against Mubarak, are we content with the old dictator being replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood leader? Or do we demand a democratic secular state, institutionalising wide workers' rights, as the essential first step to enable wide working-class organisation and a move towards socialist revolution?

Third, what is our overall defining purpose in the struggles? Is it to win a range of concessions which, bit by bit, will improve society? Or, while we value partial improvements, is the essence each struggle's contribution to the organisation, awareness, and confidence of the working class, which alone can win the victory - the socialist revolution - which is more than a temporary forcing-back of the slavering jaws of capitalism?

Fieldes says the party must "bring together those who want the movement to grow numerically, and ultimately [only ultimately?] to reach out to the social force - the working class - that has the power to actually challenge the rich and powerful".

It is not in the least clear from the context what "movement" is meant here, except that it is evidently something so distinct from the working class that only "ultimately" can it hope to reach out to the working class.

That sentence is one of only three clear references to the working class in the article. Though the article often, in passing, refers to the people involved in struggle as "workers", and sometimes to "class struggle", its general scheme is one of "struggles", "rebellions", "movements", without further definition, and of revolutionaries defined as the advocates of more militant tactics in those "struggles", "rebellions", and "movements".

The working class is invoked as a force which, because of its power, "ultimately" has to be brought into things. The suggestion is that arguing more militant tactics for "the movement" will eventually coincide with the desired "reaching out to the working class", presumably because the working class has the power to organise larger actions (strikes as distinct from occupations of city squares, for example).

Despite the word "class-conscious" being used a couple of times in the article, the scheme here is of the working class as the "brawn" whose ever-enhanced militancy has to be used as a battering-ram by the "brain" of a movement distinct from the class.

For the Marxist, wrote Plekhanov, "the revolution is of 'particular importance' for the workers, while in the opinion of the [populist] the workers, as we know, are of particular importance for the revolution". Socialist Alternative, despite its wish to be Marxist, is on the same lines as the populists here.

The Socialist Alternative article is not just a sloppy one, failing to spell out some essential steps in the argument because the writer takes them for granted. It is also a faithful mirror of the "party-building" approach of Socialist Alternative and of the whole school of which it is part, around the SWP in Britain.

The socialist revolution is invoked but seen only as the culmination of strikes and similar struggles when they reach a height of militancy. The job of the revolutionary party in the revolutionary situation is to be strong enough and, as ever, to argue for more militancy. Clear definition of aims is not seen as a problem.

Whether what the revolutionary organisation advocates is right, or tallies with the long-term aims of socialism and the working class, is secondary to whether it "positions" the organisation well to attract militant-minded people.

It is a formula which can "work" for a while. It compares badly with what Marx, Lenin, and others can teach us.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx defined the purposes of the Communist League as follows:

"1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

"The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement...

"The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement".

The idea of being "the most advanced and resolute" in immediate struggles is there, but the emphasis is on understanding and explaining long-term interests and historical aims, not on advocating more militant tactics.

George Plekhanov, in 1891, summarised Marx's argument in a way that educated Russian Marxists for decades after: "the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists", he said, is "the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat".

When Lenin wrote a draft programme for Russian Marxists in 1895, he defined the aim as "to assist this struggle of the Russian working class by developing the class-consciousness of the workers, by promoting their organisation, and by indicating the aims and objects of the struggle".

The Russian Marxists eventually adopted a programme in 1903. It defined the purpose of their movement as to "organise the proletariat into an independent political party, opposed to all the bourgeois parties, guide all the manifestations of its class struggle, expose before it the irreconcilable contradiction of interests between exploiters and exploited, and explain to it the historical significance of, and the necessary pre-conditions for, the impending social revolution".

After the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky argued that the old definitions of the role of the Marxist party had over-stressed the organic evolution of class-consciousness from struggle, and not sufficiently taken into account the sharpnesses of ideological battle and the need for a capacity for sharp turns and initiative in a revolutionary crisis.

"The proletarian revolution is precisely distinguished by the fact that the proletariat – in the person of its vanguard – acts in it not only as the main offensive force but also as the guiding force. The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat... In a revolutionary party the vitally necessary dose of conservatism must be combined with a complete freedom from routine, with initiative in orientation and daring in action".

When he summed up the Fourth International's tasks, he kept that argument in mind: "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one's program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives..."

And that is why Workers' Liberty Australia, in its constitution, see itself as having a different purpose from Socialist Alternative: "to spread ideas of unfalsified socialism, to educate ourselves in socialist theory and history, to assist every battle for working-class self-liberation, and to organise socialists into a decisive force, able to revolutionise the labour movement so that it, in turn, can revolutionise society".

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