Why revolutionaries organise
The working class has the potential to become a great power in society, but can make that potential a reality, even on the most limited scale, only by organisation.
That fact follows from two facts about the working class in developed capitalist society. It is the basic productive class. It is simultaneously a wage-slave class. Its members are relegated to relative poverty, cultural and educational restrictions, insecurity, and exhausting work burdens of parcellised tasks. Individual workers, without collective organisation, are merely troops under capitalist command.
The working class has developed permanent organisations on a scale not approached by any previous subordinate class in history. Yet some facts about the position of the working class in capitalist society tend to weaken those organisations.
The wage-slave status of the working class creates a bias towards the rank and file being relatively inactive and unconfident in its organisations. Control over the leading officials and parliamentarians becomes weak, even if the organisations have good democratic forms on paper (and usually they don't).
Those leading officials and parliamentarians live in a different world, prosperous, fairly secure, locked into frequent association and horse-trading with capitalist officials and managers. They organically gravitate towards politics of bargaining within the system which leave the working class passive and in adverse times drift into little more than damage-limitation.
In broad historic terms, the solution to this dilemma lies in the creation of an organisation of the most committed and best self-educated labour-movement activists which, drawing nourishment from all the social rebellions of the working class and its allies, small and large, builds itself into a revolutionary party capable of transforming the labour movement and thwarting those organic trends of weakening. As Max Shachtman explained: “Without consciousness and plan, the proletarian revolution is impossible; lacking them, a working class that seizes power will never hold it. Without consciousness and plan, the establishment of socialism is impossible; if socialism is not consciously planned, it will never come. Consciousness and plan imply a self-active, aware, participating, deciding proletariat, which implies in turn a dying-out of coercion and bureaucratism”.
It also implies a great achievement of self-education. The organisation must be clear about its aim and active in promoting it, rather than hoping for it to be achieved by roundabout ways. That includes defining and polemicising about the gulf between working-class socialism and all the other ideologies which have come to adopt the word “socialism”.
It follows therefore that to be effective, Marxists must organise. To keep our Marxist theory sharp and clear, we must constantly test it in practice and debate, and that too requires organisation.
We must use the openings given by the Corbyn surge to advance the work of education, persuasion, and activist organising; every deficiency in doing so weakens not only the long-term battle for socialism, but also what the working class can gain from the Corbyn surge in the short term.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty does not conceive of itself as being a revolutionary party already-shaped, and only needing to expand in numbers and grow by its own organic processes in order to become a full-formed, i.e. mass, party. The future party has to embody a sizeable fraction of the labour movement, more than an ideologically-defined pioneer minority, and will be built through a complicated process of regroupments, splits, and mergers. We have seen the illusion of being an already-shaped (albeit as yet small) “party”, often signalled by adopting the word “party” rather than “alliance”, “league”, “group” “tendency” etc. for the organisation, accompanying sectarian politics (WRP, SWP, RCP, SP, etc).
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is in essence a political-educational campaign for a revolutionary working-class party — one which sees our political-educational work as constantly and integrally linked with activity in the immediate class struggle: a tendency within the labour movement that aims to build up socialist class consciousness in our fellow workers, persuade them of the ideas that can form the political basis of such a party, and join them with us in ongoing activity.
This does not mean that our work is less essential than it would be if we called ourselves a “party”; only that we have a proper sense of proportion about what we have achieved so far, and what remains to be achieved. The conditions required for the work of a pioneer activist organisation to be fruitful are in general no less taxing for the people who undertake it than are those for an already-shaped party.
While we have a fundamentally educational role, the AWL is not a discussion circle. We also attempt to act as a lever to catalyse, and shape, workers’ struggle: as revolutionary activists in our workplaces and unions, and within the broad labour movement around us.
We attempt to act as a “memory of the class”, retaining the accumulated memories of struggles won and lost, so that their lessons can be learnt and applied in our struggles today.
To do what it has to do, the organisation has to be democratic, maintaining democratic oversight and accountability over the activity of its members who gain official positions in the broad movement and of course its own officials. To be democratic and effective, it must demand of its activists a solid minimum level of regularity in “party” activity, discipline in action, and self-education.
Lenin summed it up thus: “We defined it as: unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism. Only such discipline is worthy of the democratic party of the advanced class.” (bit.ly/lenin-06). He explained further in another article around the same time: “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free... not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings [but] the Party’s political action must be united. No 'calls' that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated…”
In other words, “discipline” does not, as with some groups on the left, mean pretending to think differently from your real thoughts. It does mean a responsibility to cooperate in action, and a responsibility to clarify and argue differences rather than passively dissociating.
Outside of times of great social upheaval, revolutionary socialist organisations have usually been small, though with an influence beyond their tiny numbers. Trotsky records that in the depth of the reaction between the 1905 revolution in Russia and 1917: “In 1910 in the whole country there were a few dozen people. Some were in Siberia [i.e. exiled there by the Tsarist police]. But they were not organised. The people whom Lenin could reach by correspondence or by an agent numbered about 30 or 40 at most”. What those 30 or 40 did was indispensable for bringing it about that by February 1917 the Bolsheviks had an organisation of some 8,000 — a small minority, but with wider influence — from which base it could move to win the majority in the Soviets and lead the revolution. If it had been only 10 or 15, rather than 30 or 40, then quite likely the Bolshevik organisation would have been too small and little-known in February to have a chance of winning a majority by October, no matter how good its policy. And if those 30 or 40 had gone “with the stream”, one way or another, rather than constantly fighting to sharpen their collective Marxist understanding, the Bolsheviks would have been unable to develop the sharp and often subtle tactics, the clear proposals, the energy in pushing ideas, which they also needed to win the majority. In fact they would probably have foundered and split in 1917.
The same goes for us today. Unless we develop ourselves sharply and energetically in not-so-favourable times, we will lack the means to flower, to acquire new capacities, to grow through splits and fusions as well as accumulation of individuals, in more favourable times.
The Corbyn surge since 2015 gives us openings. About half a million people have joined the Labour Party, and some 35,000 have joined Momentum, the great majority doing so because they want to be politically active in some way or another as left-wingers.
What happens with such initially-vague surges depends on what they find to hand in the way of ideologies and political “teams”. After decades of low political life in the labour movement, since the mid-90s at least, the ideologies and political “teams” that the new young Corbyn supporters, and the older people pulled back from political retirement, found to hand were Stalinist or Stalinoid politics — mediated through the Morning Star, but also through the activity of outright Stalinists in the Leader's Office — and “NGO politics” (the leftish NGO as a model of political activity, the career in leftish NGO offices as a model of individual activism) which easily meshes in with the Stalinist ideology. The low political temperature of the surge, and the lack of livening influences on it from the direct economic class struggle, limit the challenges to those politics. Our job is to fight those politics, and to win other people to join with us in understanding those politics and combatting them in the cause of working-class socialism. Hoped
Since 2015 we have done less well with that than we hoped.
The strength of the Stalinoid-NGO current (more than we expected), the ability of the Labour Party leadership to retain essentially all the anti-democratic New Labour restructurings without widespread revolt, and the ability of the Momentum leadership to shut down democratic life within Momentum at a national level, again without widespread revolt, have made things more difficult.
But it was never on the cards that we could attract the majority of the half-million joining the Labour Party, or even the majority of the 35,000 joining Momentum. The question is how we have done on the level of the dozens and the hundreds.
Shortfalls by us have been important on that level. 2015 did produce an increase in our activity; but, within that, not enough increase in the activity which is specific to an organisation working effectively to build a revolutionary party: getting our individual activists known as part of a purposeful collective with known ideas and visible collective activity; circulating and getting discussion on literature; drawing people into activities with us; organising political discussions. And (in most periods, anyway) half as much activity of that specific sort does not produce half the results, in terms of effective dissemination of full-scale revolutionary socialist ideas and organisation-building. It may produce a tenth of the results, or no results at all. Conversely, doubling activity of that sort can increase results way out of proportion.
The founding document of our tendency, in 1966, was written as a discussion document within what was then the Militant group, and concluded with specific proposals. The first proposal given special emphasis was this: “The first task of the leadership is the organisation. On these comrades rests the responsibility for ensuring Bolshevik activity by the whole group in the broad movement. It is imperative that their own broad movement activities take second place”.
The need for a revolutionary party depends on the fact that the working class does not develop evenly, one year everyone conservative, the next year everyone reformist, the year after that everyone revolutionary... Different sections develop differently, in interconnecting ways, and there are regressions as well as advances. On a smaller scale, that is also true within a revolutionary party, and even within a small organisation setting out to educate on the need for a revolutionary party, and build its political nucleus.
The revolutionary organisation lives, by definition, within a hostile society, indeed within a largely hostile labour movement. The revolutionary organisation strives to push its ideas out, but at the same time the broader society and the broader labour movement press in on it. A revolutionary organisation has to expect some tirednesses, discouragements, etc. among its older members, and work deliberately to make sure they do not set the tone for the whole organisation.
We must set the aim of constantly renewing and refreshing our network of organisers. As Plekhanov declared: “without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement in the true sense of the word... An idea which is inherently revolutionary is a kind of dynamite which no other explosive in the world can replace. And as long as our movement is under the banner of backward or erroneous theories it will have revolutionary significance only by some, but by no means all of its aspects. At the same time, without its members knowing it, it will bear in itself the germs of reaction which will deprive it even of that little significance in the more or less near future…”
Trotsky took the argument further: “The mass organisations have value precisely because they are mass organisations. Even when they are under... reformist leadership one cannot discount them. One must win the masses who are in their clutches: whether from outside or from inside depends on the circumstance. Small organisations which regard themselves as selective, as pioneers, can only have value on the strength of their programme and of the schooling and steeling of their cadres. A small organisation which has no unified programme and no really revolutionary will is less than nothing, is a negative quantity”.
A small organisation cannot hope to make progress towards building a revolutionary party just by having its individual members run good campaigns, or be admirable trade-unionists. It can do it only by showing people around it that it has world-changing ideas, getting them to study those ideas, convincing them.
The first condition here is that the organisation's own members are well-schooled in its ideas. (That does not exclude members disagreeing with the majority on particular policies; it does mean that those members study the majority view thoroughly and strive to formulate their own, differing, ideas in well-worked-out form). And for that we need, above all, to read books.
A culture nourished only by word-of-mouth discussion, or, worse, by internet chatter, cannot have the necessary solidity.
To become an adequate revolutionary organisation, we must read more books, and in the first place the Marxist classics and our own books (as well as books from wider working-class socialist and radical traditions, and works of serious “bourgeois” scholarship).
A chief plank of our work in the labour movement, especially in the Labour Party, is the revival of democratic culture long marginalised by Blairism and general bureaucratism.
EP Thompson's history, The Making of the English Working Class, reports in the heroic period of the formation of the labour movement, in the first half of the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars, “a general addiction to the forms and proprieties of organisational constitutionalism. It seems at times that half a dozen working men could scarcely sit in a room together without appointing a Chairman, raising a point-of-order, or moving the Previous Question”.
Whatever the influences on that addiction of mimicry of bourgeois parliamentarism or of copying from dissenting religious sects, it represented a sound working-class instinct, and a protection for the critic, the dissident, the pioneer, the unconfident, and the slow of tongue. That tradition remained in force for many decades. In the Blair-Brown period it was openly decried — meetings, motions, votes were declared “boring” — and with serious effect. Many young labour movement people have no idea of the objective procedures needed to make a meeting democratic. Many older ones have lost what idea they did have.
Restoring objective democratic procedures in the labour movement, and sustaining and improving them in our own ranks, is a central part of our work to build a revolutionary party.
• In the lead up to conference we will publish some conference documents in Solidarity. To read these online see: < a href="http://www.workersliberty.org/AWLconference18"