Building the revolutionary party

Based on a talk that I gave to the Kent Socialist Workers Party group. To many people these ideas will be obvious, but sometimes it helps to be reminded of the obvious. References are at the bottom.

There are three main tasks that face a revolutionary socialist party. The first is the SWP’s role, or any socialist party’s role, as an antifascist opposition; second is the importance of education on socialism: this topic is the majority of this article; third is the importance of internationalism and of relating individual struggles, as explained by Duncan Hallas.

At the recent Party Council of the SWP (June 2nd), Weyman Bennett (UAF) made a point about the role of socialists in fighting the far right. Recent experience has shown that social-democracy  (that is, introducing socialist politics through reformist methods) in Europe, for example in Sweden, Denmark, and arguably the area controlled by our own Green Party, has shown no opposition to austerity. Many problems and kinds of unrest caused by capitalism make the rise of fascism all the easier. Trotsky in his last article (August 1940), Bonapartism, Fascism, and War gives many examples of these problems but there are three that are most relatable to our current situation: “the gravest crisis of capitalist society; growing confusion and indifference; the growth of hostility to the proletariat”.

I could give specific examples, but they are fairly self-explanatory. The polling strength of the racist Swedish Democrats is the result of scapegoating inequality and other social ills on immigrants. It is quite clear that if the periodical and inevitable crises of capitalism can lead to the popularity of fascist and right-wing populist ideas, a dedicated anti-capitalist party will also be the most effective antifascist party. Left-reformists themselves have a lot to answer for in the rise of the far right. The Labour party has taken a typically conservative stance on immigration, while Ed Milliband expresses his respect for UKIP. All this serves to normalise anti-immigrant hatred.

When teaching people about socialism, we need to get to the root of the idea, like Lenin does in State and Revolution. If not, people will be left with a very poor understanding. Ian Birchall points out in his A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (2005): “Societies have been described as socialist just because major parts of the economy were nationalised.” Norway is one such example. It is always wrongly described as socialist. We need to educate about a fundamental change that socialism aims to bring – that is, workers controlling their means of production, not just about taxing the rich and nationalising industries.

If we are to judge V.I. Lenin purely on character, we should note how he wanted to mobilise all kinds of socialists, but spent many hours debating specifics. It is important in a socialist party to draw in all anti-capitalists, but to be critical without being hostile. Anarchists are usually present at UAF and anti-cuts demonstrations, and we have a lot in common with them. Lenin recognised that he has the same goal as most anarchists. The difference is that Marxists have a serious strategy for overthrowing capitalism. John Molyneux says, in his critique of anarchism (2011): “Without the best tactics, the noblest goals, the most daring plans are so much hot air and wishful thinking. The fact that Marxism identifies such a force – the international working class – is its greatest strength and Marx’s greatest theoretical achievement.” Anarchism on the other hand does not have a plan for securing a future for workers, or for reaching a classless society. But with socialism, Molyneux explains: “When the working class takes power it remains the producing class in society, with no class below it which it can exploit or live off… it [also] has the capacity to prevent any new class emerging above it.”

With all the ways capitalism can demoralise and defeat workers, for instance by smashing unions or violently breaking up protests and strikes, it will still rely on them to produce its profits. S it is another matter of education to show working people just how much power they have. This power is summed up perfectly by the old Joe Hill song, Solidarity Forever:

“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”

You can also analyse the ‘track record’ of anarchism, but this is unlikely to convince anarchists of anything. Another brand of anti-capitalism that needs some arguing with is ‘libertarian socialism’. Noam Chomsky is probably the most popular figure of this movement. They take a totally simplistic perspective on Lenin that falls for the Cold War orthodoxy, that Lenin lead deliberately and directly to Stalinism, and that they were the same kind of dictator, both obstacles to real socialism. The reality is much more complex. It is clear from Lenin’s speeches and writings that he opposed Stalin’s rise to power, warning against it as one of his last political actions. Two useful essays for understanding the direction that the Soviet Union took are Tony Cliff’s Trotsky on Substitutionism (1960) and Was Lenin a Stalinist? by Marcel Liebman. Duncan Hallas describes another way in which libertarian socialism is too simplistic. It is based on the equation: centralised organisation = bureaucracy = degeneration. “What is really being implied here is that working people are incapable of democratic control of their own organisations. Granted that in many cases this has proven to be true; to argue that it is necessarily true is to argue that socialism is impossible because democracy, in its literal sense, is impossible.”

A preference of left reformism over revolutionary politics might come from looking at the failures, imperfections, and bloodshed of previous revolutions, and the lack of evidence that they have transformed society into something less driven by profit and exploitation. taking the example of the French revolution, it was a victory against a small section of the ruling class: the monarchy. The result was not the emancipation of workers and nothing to do with the interaction of classes fundamentally changed. But Marx, in his Critique of German Ideology, describes how a communist revolution is much more significant than any so-called ‘bourgeois revolution’:

“In all former revolutions the form of activity was always left unaltered and it was only a question of redistributing this activity among different people, of introducing a new division of labour. The communist revolution, however, is directed against the former mode of activity, and abolishes all class rule along with the classes themselves.”

The American revolution was a different kind that instead of ever dealing with class struggle propped up the myths of individuality, self-determination, and social mobility, the idea that escaping a class is more important than improving its conditions. Thatcherism has imitated this. In Capital Vol. III, Marx warned against delusions of social mobility in the following way: “The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the most prominent men of the dominated classes the more stable and dangerous its rule.” The Russian Revolution was something rather different. I agree with Alex Callinicos, in his introduction to the collection of essays Party and Class (1971) when he describes it as “the most democratic event in history”.

A final matter of education is to point out class issues where they might not be so obvious. I have talked and written on climate change before, a crisis that is not affecting everyone evenly, but is actually most immediately harmful to the poorest in the world. The recent counter-demonstrations against the BNP, EDL, and NF around the country should be a reminder of how the police are also not neutral: their primary purpose is to defend property, and therefore the ruling and owning class, rather than defending people. In London the BNP were treated well and protected, while 58 anti-racists were arrested. From what I saw, some of them seemed to be randomly grabbed from the crowd. Lenin, in State and Revolution, says of police and military forces, “The state consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.” Another overlooked example of discrimination based on class and property ownership was the disaster relief of Hurricane Katrina, which was dealt with partly by the state, partly by the Red Cross. A journalist, Amity Paye, noticed that all the wealthy homeowners were being rescued first, with the poorest, most vulnerable families not being a priority. The importance of understanding Marxist economic theory here, and how to apply it, is clear. We need to follow the example of Ernest Mandel and Clara Zetkin, and make efforts to see that every radicalised worker has grounding in theory.

Duncan Hallas wrote an essay in 1971 called Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party, which emphasises two essential tasks for building a party. Hallas was writing at a time when three different organisations were claiming, as if they were Baptist denominations, the be the one true Fourth International. He said of internationalism: “An ‘International’ which consists of no more than a grouping of sects in various countries is a fiction… it leads to delusions of grandeur and hence to evasion of the real problems.” He says that to build real international socialism,

“It is necessary to start by linking the concrete struggles of workers in one country with those of others; of Ford workers in Britain and Germany for example. … This means putting aside grandiose ideas of ‘international leadership’ … and the like, in favour of the humdrum tasks of propaganda and agitation in one’s own country together with the development of international links which, however limited at first, are meaningful to advanced workers.”

As well as dreaming of a Sixth or Seventh International, Hallas argues that: “The many partial and localised struggles on wages, conditions, housing, rents, education, health and so on, have to be coordinated and unified into a coherent forward movement based on a strategy for the transformation of society.” This means that, instead of simply pointing to individual politicians and bosses and landlords, striking workers and their supporters need to treat the many injustices they face as a systemic problem, as inherent ills of capitalism, and acknowledge that the Brighton council workers have the same enemy as students who are worried about paying off their student loan. Karl Marx said that the functions of the capitalist are only the functions of capital. Once the majority understands this, there is a basis for a mass revolutionary socialist party.

Works referred to, with links where possible:


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