First published in Cliff et al., Party and Class, Pluto Press, London 1971.
Also published under the title The Way Forward in N. Harris & J. Palmer (eds.), World Crisis, Hutchinson, London 1971.
Downloaded from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The events of the last 40 years largely isolated the revolutionary socialist tradition from the working classes of the West. The first problem is to reintegrate them. The many partial and localised struggles on wages, conditions, housing, rents, education, health and so on have to be co-ordinated and unified into a coherent forward movement based on a strategy for the transformation of society.
In human terms, an organised layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism and the way to achieve it, has to be created. Or rather it has to be recreated. For such a layer existed in the twenties in Britain and internationally. Its disintegration, initially by Stalinism and then by the complex interactions of Stalinism, Fascism and neo-reformism, reduced the authentic socialist tradition in the advanced capitalist countries to the status of a fringe belief. As it re-emerges from that status, old disputes take on new life. The nature of the socialist organisation is again an issue.
That an organisation of socialist militants is necessary is common ground on the left, a few anarchist purists apart. But what kind of organisation? One view, widespread amongst newly radicalised students and young workers, is that of the libertarians. In the nature of the case this is something of a blanket term covering a number of distinct tendencies. The essence of what they have in common is hostility to centralised, co-ordinated activity and profound suspicion of anything smacking of “leadership”. On this view nothing more than a loose federation of working groups is necessary or desirable. The underlying assumptions are that centralised organisations inevitably undergo bureaucratic degeneration and that the spontaneous activities of working people are the sole and sufficient basis for the achievement of socialism.
The evidence for the first assumption is, on the face of it, impressive. The classic social-democratic parties of the early 20th century are a text-book example. It was the German social-democracy that furnished Robert Michels with the material from which he formulated the “iron law of oligarchy”. The communist parties, founded in the first place to wrest the politically conscious workers from the influence of conservative social-democratic bureaucracies, became in time bureaucratised and authoritarian to a degree previously undreamt of in working class parties. Moreover, the basic mass organisations, the trade unions, have everywhere become a byword for bureaucratisation and this, apparently, irrespective of the political complexion of their leadership.
From this sort of evidence some libertarians draw the conclusion that a revolutionary socialist party is a contradiction in terms. This is, of course, the traditional anarcho-syndicalist position. More commonly it is conceded that a party may, in favourable circumstances, avoid succumbing to the embraces of the establishment. However, the argument goes, such a party, bureaucratised by definition, inevitably contains within its structure the embryo of a new ruling group and will, if successful, create a new exploitative society. The experience of Stalinist parties in power is advanced as evidence here.
Much of the plausibility of views of this sort derives from their highly abstract and therefore universal character. It would be unfair to equate them with the currently fashionable “naked apery” but there is certainly some similarity in their psychological appeal. Writers like Morris and Ardrey dispense with the difficult and complicated job of analysing actual societies and actual conflicts in order to deduce from an allegedly unchanging human (or animal) nature the “inevitability” of this or that. In the same way much libertarian thinking proceeds from very general ideas about the evils of formal organisation to highly specific conclusions without much effort to investigate the actual course of events. Thus Stalinism is seen as the “inevitable” consequence of Lenin’s predilection for a centralised party. A few general notions, a few supposed “universal truths” which are easily mastered in half an hour, become the substitute for serious theoretical equipment. Since the real world is a very complicated place it is highly reassuring to have at one’s disposal the ingredients for an instant social wisdom. Unfortunately it is also highly misleading.
The equation “centralised organisation equals bureaucracy equals degeneration” is in fact a secularised version of the original sin myth. Like its prototype it leads to profoundly reactionary conclusions. For what is really being implied is that working people are incapable of collective democratic control of their own organisations. Granted that in many cases this has proved to be true; to argue that it is necessarily, inevitably true is to argue that socialism is impossible because democracy, in the literal sense, is impossible.
This is precisely the conclusion that was drawn by the “neo-Machiavellian” social theorists of the early 20th century and which is deeply embedded in modern academic sociology. It lies at the root of modern social democratic theory, such as it is. Of course, libertarian socialists will have none of this. The essence of their position is rejection of the tired old cliché that there must always be élites and masses, leaders and led, rulers and ruled. Nevertheless the opposite conclusion is implicit in their approach to organisational questions for the simple reason that formal organisations are an essential feature of any complex society.
In fact, useful argument about the problems of socialist organisation is impossible at the level of “universal” generalisations. Organisations do not exist in a vacuum. They are composed of actual people in specific historical situations, attempting to solve real problems with a limited number of options open to them. Failure to take adequate account of these rather obvious considerations vitiates discussion. This is particularly clear in the disputes about the origins of Stalinism.
That Bolshevism was the father of Stalinism is an article of faith with most libertarians. It is also the view of the great majority of social-democratic, liberal and conservative writers and, of course, in the purely formal sense that the Stalinist bureaucracy emerged from the Bolshevik party, it is incontestable. But this does not get us very far. By the same reasoning Jesus Christ was the father of the Spanish Inquisition and Abraham Lincoln the father of United States imperialism, but nobody, one hopes, imagines that statements of this type lead to any useful conclusion. The question is how and why Stalinism emerged and what role, if any, the structure of the Bolshevik party played in the process.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s treatment of the matter in his book Obsolete Communism is instructive. He sets out to show that “far from leading the Russian Revolution forwards, the Bolsheviks were responsible for holding back the struggle of the masses between February and October 1917, and later for turning the revolution into a bureaucratic counterrevolution – in both cases because of the party’s very nature, structure and ideology”.
The first point is not relevant here and will be discussed later. The second is developed by means of quotations, suitably selected to establish the calculated malevolence of Lenin and Trotsky. It is shown, correctly, that in 1917 Lenin favoured management of enterprises by elected committees of workers and that in 1918 he came out strongly for one-man management, that Trotsky in 1920 called for the militarisation of labour and that the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921 was an important turning point in the process by which the Russian workers lost power. What is really astonishing about Cohn-Bendit’s account of these events is his complete omission of any consideration of the circumstances in which they took place. The ravages of war and civil war, the ruin of Russian industry, the actual disintegration of the Russian working class; all this, apparently, has no bearing on the outcome. True it is conceded in passing that Russia was a backward country and was isolated by the failure of the German revolution but, we are told, “these general factors can in no way explain the specific turn it (the revolution) took”.
Now it is usually supposed that there is some sort of connection between the type and level of the production of the necessities of life and the kinds of social organisation that are possible at any stage. No doubt it is very unfortunate that this should be so. Otherwise mankind might have leapt straight from the old stone age to socialism.
If, however, it is conceded that one of the preconditions for socialism is a fairly highly developed industry with a high productivity of labour then some of the “general factors”, so casually dismissed by Cohn-Bendit, assume a certain importance. Russia at the time of the revolution was not just a backward country. By the standards of the developed capitalist countries of the time it was very backward indeed. 80% of the total population was still engaged in agriculture; the comparable figure for Britain was 4.5% of the work force. The economist Colin Clark estimated the real income per head per occupied person in Russia in 1913 as 306 units; the comparable figure for Britain was 1,071 units. Indeed on Clark’s calculations, the figure for Britain as early as 1688, some 370 units, was higher than that for Russia in 1913. All such assessments contain a large margin of error no doubt, but even if the maximum allowance is made for this the prospects for an immediate transition to a non-coercive society in early 20th century Russia were very slender indeed. True, man does not live by bread alone, the cultural heritage is also important. And the cultural heritage of Russia was Tsarist barbarism. Not surprisingly there was no tendency whatever in the pre-revolutionary Russian Marxist movement that believed that socialism was on the agenda for an isolated Russia, though this illusion had, it is true, been entertained by the Narodniks.
Yet the economic level of 1913, miserable as it was, represented affluence compared to what was to come. War, revolution, civil war and foreign intervention shattered the productive apparatus. By May 1919 Russian industry was reduced to 10% of its normal fuel supply.  By the end of that year 79% of the total railway track mileage was out of action-and this in a huge country where motor transport was practically non-existent. By the end of 1920 the output of all manufactured goods had fallen to 12.9% of the 1913 level.
The effect on the working class was catastrophic. As early as December 1918 the number of workers in Petrograd had fallen to half the level of two years earlier. By December 1920 that city had lost 57.5% of its total population. In the same three years Moscow lost 44.5%.
The number of industrial workers proper was over three million in 1917. In 1921 it had fallen to one and a quarter million. The Russian working class was disappearing into the countryside to avoid literal starvation. And what a countryside! War, famine, typhus, forced requisitioning by red and white alike, the disappearance of even such manufactured goods as matches, paraffin and thread-this was the reality in the Russia of 1920–21. According to Trotsky even cannibalism was reported from several provinces.
In these desperate conditions the Bolshevik party came to substitute its own rule for that of a decimated, exhausted working class that was itself a small fraction of the population, and within the party the growing apparatus increasingly edged the membership from control. All this is incontestable, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the actual situation had rather more influence on these developments than the “very nature, structure and ideology” of the party. As a matter of fact the party regime was astonishingly liberal in this period.
The most balanced summary of the matter is that of Victor Serge, himself a communist with strong libertarian leanings, an eye-witness and a participant, “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs – a mass of other germs – and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is this very sensible?” Given the backwardness of Russia, which germs flourished and which stagnated, which of the several potential outcomes actually materialised, depended above all on the international situation.
The Bolshevik seizure of power took place in the context of a European revolution. The revolutionary movements proved strong enough to overthrow the German Kaiser, the Austrian Emperor and the Turkish Sultan as well as the Russian Tsar. They proved strong enough to prevent a foreign intervention sufficiently massive and sustained to overthrow the Soviet regime, assisted of course by the conflicts between the remaining great powers. But they were aborted or crushed before the critical transition, the establishment of working class power in one or two advanced countries, was reached. The failure of the German revolution in 1918–19 to pass beyond the stage of the capitalist-democratic republic seems, in retrospect, to have been decisive. The defeat of the Spartacists sealed the fate of working class rule in Russia, for only substantial economic aid from an advanced economy, in practice from a socialist Germany, could have reversed the disintegration of the Russian working class.
The actual outcome, the transformation of what Lenin, in 1921, called a “workers’ and peasants’ State which is bureaucratically deformed” into a totalitarian State capitalism, was itself complex and lengthy. The point that is relevant to this discussion is that an essential part of that process was the destruction of all the wings and tendencies of the Bolshevik party. It was not sufficient for the counter-revolution to liquidate the various oppositions of left and right. So little was the party suitable as an instrument “for turning the revolution into a bureaucratic counter-revolution” that most of the original Stalinist cadre too had to be eliminated before the new ruling class stabilised its position.
By 1934, the year of the 17th Party Congress, all open opposition in the party had long been suppressed. The fate of the delegates to that Congress, Stalinists almost to a man, was revealed by Khruschev in 1956. “Of the 1,966 delegates, 1,108 were arrested ... Of the 139 members and candidates of the party’s central committee elected at the Congress 98, i.e. 70%, were arrested and shot.” In short, the vast majority of those who had any roots in the Bolshevik past – 80% of the 17th Congress delegates had joined by 1921 – were liquidated and replaced by new personnel “uncontaminated” by even the most tenuous ties with the working class movement.
These events, which have had such profound and lasting consequences, are facts of an altogether different order of magnitude from the deficiencies, real or alleged, of Bolshevik organisational practice. To suppose otherwise is to fall into that extreme voluntarism which many libertarians share with the Maoists.
It does not follow that the last word in organisational wisdom is to be found in the Bolshevik model. In the very different conditions of late 20th century capitalism arguments for or against Lenin’s position of 1903 are not so much right or wrong as irrelevant. The “vanguard partyism” of some of the Maoist and Trotskyist sects is the obverse of the libertarian coin. Both alike are based on a highly abstract and misleading view of reality.
What is in dispute here is in part the usefulness of the analogy. It is clear that any substantial revolutionary socialist party is necessarily, in one sense, a “vanguard”. But there is no substance in the argument that the concept is elitist. The essence of elitism is the assertion that the observable differences in abilities, consciousness and experience are rooted in unalterable genetic or social conditions and that the mass of the people are incapable of self-government now or in the future. Rejection of the elitist position implies that the observed differences are wholly or partly attributable to causes that can be changed. It does not mean denial of the differences themselves.
The real objection to the emphasis on the “vanguard party” is that it is often part of an obsolete world outlook that directs attention away from contemporary problems and leads, in extreme cases, to a systematic false consciousness, an ideology in the strict Marxian sense of that term.
A vanguard implies a main body, marching in roughly the same direction and imbued with some sort of common outlook and shared aspiration.
When, for example, Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early thirties as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterisation was apt. Not only did the party itself include, amongst its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of the German workers; it operated in a working class which, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought and which was confronted, especially after 1929, with a deepening social crisis which could not be resolved within the framework of the Weimar Republic.
In that situation the actions of the party were of decisive importance. What it did, or failed to do, influenced the whole subsequent course of European and world history. The sharp polemics about the details of tactics, history and theory, which were the staple output of the oppositional communist groups of the period, were entirely justified and necessary. In the given circumstances the vanguard was decisive. In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could change the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.
Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany or France but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party.
The crux of the matter is how to develop the process, now begun, of recreating it. It may be true, as Gramsci said, that it is harder to create generals than to create an army. It is certainly true that generals without an army, are entirely useless; even if it is supposed that they can be created in a vacuum. In fact, “vanguardism”, in its extreme forms, is an idealist perversion of Marxism, which leads to a moralistic view of the class struggle. Workers are seen as straining at the leash, always ready and eager to fight but always betrayed by corrupt and reactionary leaders. Especially pernicious are the “left” leaders whose radical phraseology conceals a fixed determination to sell the pass at the first opportunity.
Such things certainly happen of course. Corruption in the literal sense is not unknown in the British labour movement and in its more subtle manifestations it is widespread. But it is grotesquely one-sided to suppose that, for example, the history of Britain since the war, can be explained in terms of “betrayals” and it is idiotic to imagine that all that is necessary is to “build a new leadership” around some sect or other and then offer it as an alternative to the waiting workers.
The reality is much more complex. The elements of a working class leadership already exist. The activists and militants who actually maintain the shop floor and working class organisations from day to day are the leadership in practical terms. That they are, typically, more or less under the influence of reformist or Stalinist ideas or ideas more reactionary still, is not to be explained in terms of betrayal. It is to be explained both in terms of their own experience and in terms of the absence of a socialist tendency seen as credible and realistic.
The first point has been crucial. Reformist policies have been successful in the advanced economies in the last 20-odd years. Not always or for everyone but for enough people enough of the time to create a widespread belief in reformism as a viable proposition.
As conditions change the second point becomes increasingly important and excessive emphasis on the vanguard concept can become a real barrier to the process of fusing the tradition and the activists.
One of the negative features of the leadership/betrayal syndrome is the assumption that the answers to all problems are known in advance. They are contained in a programme which is definitive and final. To safeguard the purity of the programme is seen as one of the main tasks of the selected few. That there may be new problems which require new solutions, that it is necessary to learn from one’s fellow workers as well as to teach, are unwelcome ideas. And yet they are fundamental. Omniscience is no more granted to organisations than to individuals. A certain amount of modesty, of flexibility, of awareness of limitations is necessary.
It is, on the face of it, rather unlikely that a programme written in, let us say, 1938, contains the complete solution to the questions of the 1970s. It is certainly the case that in the process of recreating a considerable socialist movement many old concepts will have to be modified. Ideas, at least useful, operative ideas, have some sort of relationship to facts and it is a platitude that the world in which we work is changing at an unparalleled rate.
As a matter of fact the development of a programme, in the sense of a detailed statement of partial and transitional aims and tactics in all important fields, is inseparable from the development of the movement itself. It presupposes the participation of a large number of people who are themselves actively engaged in those fields. The job of socialists is to connect their theory and aims with the problems and experiences of militants in such a way as to achieve a synthesis that is both a practical guide to action and a springboard for further advance. Such a synthesis is meaningful to the extent that it actually guides the activities of participants and is modified in the light of practice and that change in circumstances which it itself produces. This is the real meaning of the “struggle for a programme” that is so often turned into a fetish.
Similar considerations apply to internationalism. Internationalism, the recognition of the long-run common interests of workers everywhere and of the priority of this interest over all sectional and national considerations is basic to socialism. Today, with the increasing weight and influence of great international big business concerns, this is more obvious than ever. There cannot be a purely national socialist organisation. It is one of the merits of the Trotskyist groupings to have consistently emphasised this fundamental truth.
Yet the conclusion often drawn from it: “one must start with the International” is another example of the distorting influence of overconcentration on “leadership”. An “International” which consists of no more than a grouping of sects in various countries is a fiction. It is a harmful fiction because, as experience has shown, it leads to delusions of grandeur and hence to evasion of the real problems. The ludicrous situation in which no less than three bodies exist, each claiming to be the Fourth International and exchanging mutual anathemas like rival mediaeval popes, is a sufficient indication of the bankruptcy of ultravanguardism in the international field.
To develop a real current of internationalism – and without such a current all talk of an International is self-deception – 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, of dockers in London and Rotterdam and so on. This means starting where such workers actually exist, namely in the various countries. It means putting aside grandiose ideas of “International leadership”, “World Congresses” 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 outside the sectarian milieu.
Meetings and discussions between socialist grouplets in the various countries are essential, theoretical discussion is essential but above all the creation of real links between groups of workers is essential. Only after this has been done on a considerable scale will the preconditions for the recreation of the International be achieved. In the existing situation the analogy of Marx and the First International is in some ways more relevant than that of Lenin and the Third. Neither provides a blueprint that can be followed mechanically.
Of course, after all the dross is discarded, there is an important grain of truth in the “vanguard” analogy. It lies in the recognition of the extreme unevenness of the working people in consciousness, confidence, experience and activity. A rather small and constantly changing fraction of the working class is actually involved, to any extent, in the activities of the existing mass organisations. A larger fraction is episodically involved and the vast majority are drawn into activity only in exceptional circumstances. Moreover even when largish numbers of workers are engaged in actions, in strikes or rent struggles, etc, these actions are typically sectional and limited in their objectives, The only major exception which occurs more or less regularly, the act of voting for a party seen as, in some sense, the working man’s party, is itself increasingly ritualistic in character. And even at this level it has to be remembered that at every election since the war something like one-third of the working class has voted Tory.
To state these well-known facts is sometimes regarded as something of a betrayal, a slander against the working class. And yet it is merely a statement, not only of what exists, but also of what must exist for capitalist class society in its “democratic” form to continue at all. Once large numbers of people actually act directly, collectively and continuously to change their conditions they not only change themselves; they undermine the whole basis of capitalism. The relevance of a party is, firstly, that it can give the real vanguard, the more advanced and conscious minority of workers and not the sects or self-proclaimed leaders, the confidence and the cohesion necessary to carry the mass with them. It follows that there can be no talk of a party that does not include this minority as one of its major components.
The problem of apathy has to be seen in this context. As has often been pointed out, the essence of apathy is the feeling of powerlessness, of inability to change the course of events in more than a marginal way, if that. The growth of apathy, the increase in “privatisation”, in turning one’s back on the world, is naturally closely connected with the decline in the ability of reformist politics to deliver the goods as the power of the international capitalist firms to evade “national” restrictions grows steadily. This is why apathy can be very rapidly turned into its opposite if a credible alternative is presented.
That alternative must be more than a mere collection of individuals giving general adherence to a platform. It must also be a centre for mutual training and debate, for raising the level of the raw activist to that of the experienced, for the fusion of the experiences and outlook of manual and white collar workers and intellectuals with ideas of scientific socialism. It must be a substitute for those institutions, special schools, universities, clubs, messes and so on, through which the ruling class imbues its cadres with a common outlook, tradition and loyalty. And it must do this without cutting off its militants from their fellow workers.
That hoary red herring, the question of whether socialist consciousness arises “spontaneously” amongst workers or is imposed by intellectuals from the “outside” has absolutely no relevance to modern conditions. It is strictly a non-question because it assumes the existence of a more or less autonomous working class world-outlook into which something is injected. Whether the relatively homogeneous working class outlook, so lovingly described by writers like Hoggart, was ever so autonomous as has often been supposed may be questioned. In any case it is dead, killed by changing social conditions and above all by the mass media. It is rather ridiculous to argue about whether one should bring ideas from “outside” to workers who own television sets. Certainly most workers and especially the activists see things rather differently than the denizens of the stockbroker belt. Their whole life experience ensures this. But workers are not automata responding passively to the environment. Everyone has to have some picture of the world, some frame of reference into which data are fitted, some assumptions about society. The whole vast apparatus of mass communications, educational institutions and the rest have, as one of their principal functions, what sociologists call “socialisation” and what the old Wobblies called head-fixing. The assumptions convenient to the ruling class are the daily diet of all of us. Individuals, whether bus drivers or lecturers in aesthetics, can resist the conditioning process to a point. Only a collective can develop a systematic alternative worldview, can overcome to some degree the alienation of manual and mental work that imposes on everyone, on workers and intellectuals alike, a partial and fragmented view of reality. What Rosa Luxemburg called “the fusion of science and the workers” is unthinkable outside a revolutionary party.
Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.
The point was well illustrated by Isaac Deutscher in discussing the Communist Parties in the late twenties and early thirties. “When the European communist went out to argue his case before a working class audience, he usually met there a Social Democratic opponent whose arguments he had to refute and whose slogans he had to counter. Most frequently he was unable to do this, because he lacked the habits of political debate, which were not cultivated within the party, and because his schooling deprived him of the ability to preach to the unconverted. He could not probe adequately into his opponents case when he had to think all the time about his own orthodoxy ... He could propound with mechanical fanaticism a prescribed set of arguments and slogans; ... When called upon, as he often was, to answer criticism of the Soviet Union, he could rarely do so convincingly, his thanksgiving prayers to the workers’ fatherland and his hosannahs for Stalin covered him with ridicule in the eyes of any sober-minded audience. This ineffectiveness of the Stalinist agitation was one of the main reasons why over many years, even in the most favourable circumstances, that agitation made little or no headway against Social Democratic reformism.” Latter-day parallels will spring to mind.
The self-education of militants is impossible in an atmosphere of sterile orthodoxy. Self-reliance and confidence in one’s ideas are developed in the course of that genuine debate that takes place in an atmosphere where differences are freely and openly argued. The “monolithic party” is a Stalinist concept. Uniformity and democracy are mutually incompatible.
Naturally a party cannot be a hold-all in which any and every conceivable standpoint is represented. The limits of membership are democratic collective control by the working class over industry and society. Within these limits a variety of views on aspects of strategy and tactics is necessary and inevitable in a democratic organisation. The heresy hunting characteristic of certain sects is self-defeating; an atmosphere of quasi-religious fanaticism is incompatible with the reintegration of the socialist tradition with a broad layer of workers.
The discipline that is certainly necessary in any serious organisation can arise in one of two ways. It can arise from a system of artificial unanimity enforced by edicts and prescriptions, a system that is counter-productive in a socialist group. Or it can arise from a common tradition and loyalty built on the basis of common work, mutual education and a realistic and responsible relationship to the spontaneous activities of workers.
Spontaneity is a fact. But what does it mean? Simply that groups of workers who are not active with any political or even trade union organisation take action on their own behalf or in support of others. From the point of view of organisations the action is “spontaneous”; from the point of view of the workers concerned it is conscious and deliberate. Such activity is constantly occurring and reflects the aspirations for self-government that are widespread even amongst workers commonly regarded as “backward”. It is an elemental expression of the class struggle. Without it conscious militants would be suspended in a vacuum. To use the hackneyed but useful analogy, it is the steam that drives the pistons of working class organisation.
Pistons without propellants are useless. Steam unchannelled has only a limited effect. Spontaneity and organisation are not alternatives; they are different aspects of the process by which increasing numbers of workers can become conscious of the reality of their situation and of their power to change it. The growth of that process depends on a dialogue, on organised militants who listen as well as argue, who understand the limitations of a party as well as its strengths and who are able to find connections between the actual consciousness of their fellows and the politics necessary to realise the aspirations buried in that consciousness.
It sometimes happens that even the best militants find themselves overtaken by events and occupying a position, for a shorter or longer time, to the right of previously unmilitant workers. The experience is familiar to active rank-and-file trade unionists. Slogans and demands that were yesterday acceptable only to the more conscious people can quite suddenly be too limited for the majority when a struggle develops beyond the expected point. Inevitably the greater experience and knowledge of the activists induces a certain caution, normally appropriate, but which, in a rapidly changing situation, can sometimes become a real barrier to advance. The same tendency is bound to occur with an organisation. This is the valid element in Cohn-Bendit’s critique of socialist parties.
The danger is inherent in the nature of the environment. Sudden changes of consciousness amongst this group or that cannot always or even usually be predicted. What can be predicted is the need for the sensitivity to detect them rapidly and the flexibility to react appropriately.
Neither the existence of such spontaneous changes of mood, unexpected upheavals nor the frequent tendency towards caution amongst the layer of experienced and committed socialists constitute an argument against a party. On the contrary, given the unevenness of consciousness and the industrial and geographical divisions of the working class, a party, indeed a centralised party, is essential to give to various actions of different groups that cohesion and co-ordination without which their effect will be limited to local and sectional gains.
It is an argument against that bureaucratic caricature of a party that Stalinism has caused many on the left to confuse with the genuine article. One of Cohn-Bendit’s chosen illustrations of party conservatism, the fact that in July 1917 the Bolshevik party lagged behind the workers of Petrograd and tried to restrain and limit their demonstrations, illuminates the point. The party was caught in a dilemma inherent in the uneven development of the movement in Russia as a whole. As Trotsky wrote “there was the fear that Petrograd might become isolated from the more backward provinces; on the other hand there was the hope that an active and energetic intervention by Petrograd might save the situation”. This “conservatism” was a reflection of the pressure of the party members in other centres who, in turn, transmitted the mood of working class circles in these centres. The fact that there was a party sufficiently flexible to react to that pressure probably prevented a repetition of the Paris Commune in 1917. This, of course, was the most extreme situation possible but similar problems are inevitable at every stage of development.
A revolutionary socialist party is necessary then; but such a party has been necessary for a long time. Why should it be supposed that it is possible to create it in the 1970s?
Basically the case rests on the analysis of the world crisis developed in International Socialism, and particularly on the thesis that, in the changing conditions of capitalism, reformist policies will be less and less able to provide those partial solutions to the problems confronting the working class that they have been able to provide in the decades since the Second World War. This is the objective factor.
The most important subjective factor is the decline in the ideological power of Stalinism. The past influence of Stalinism on the left and its effects, direct and by reaction, in effectively excluding the building of an alternative are difficult to exaggerate. For 15 years that power has been eroded, slowly at first and then more and more quickly. Today it is in full disintegration. This ideological decomposition is not to be confused with the organisational decline of Communist parties. Though the British party has certainly declined this is not the decisive consideration. The party still commands the allegiance of a good many industrial militants. But it no longer commands it on the old basis. It is no longer a Stalinist party. All kinds of tendencies exist within it and now that the papal infallibility of Moscow is gone for ever the monolithic party cannot be restored.
The dominant group in the party, the Gollan leadership, is effectively reformist. Whether, as some of its critics suspect, the leadership aims to liquidate the party into the Labour Party, or whether, as seems more likely, it clings to the illusion that there is room in British politics for a second reformist workers’ party, makes little difference. As an obstacle to regroupment on the left the party is a rapidly waning force.
Nor is the Labour Party left the force it used to be. In part this is a reflection of the decline of the Communist Party, for every significant left-wing in the Labour Party in the past has leaned heavily on the Communist Party’s Trade Union base. In part it is an effect of the decline of the Labour Party’s own membership organisations – youth, wards, constituencies – which has become so marked in recent years. There are still genuine socialists active in the Labour Party as there are also amongst the passive card-holders. But it seems unlikely, though it is not inconceivable, that any fairly massive socialist current will develop in the party.
The basis for the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist party exists amongst those industrial militants who used to look to the Communist Party, amongst increasing numbers of radicalised young workers and students and amongst the revolutionary groups.
The latter are an important but difficult problem. The root cause of the sort of sectarianism that has plagued the British left is the isolation of socialists from effective and influential participation in mass struggles. The isolation is rapidly diminishing but its negative effects – the exacerbation of secondary differences, the transformation of tactical differences into matters of principle, the semi-religious fanaticism which can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development, the theoretical conservatism and blindness to unwelcome aspects of reality – all these persist. They will be overcome when, and only when, a serious penetration and fusion of layers of workers and students outside sectarian circles has been achieved. The International Socialism group intends to make a significant contribution to that penetration. Without having any illusions that it is “the leadership” the group exists to make a theoretical and a practical contribution to the regeneration of socialism in Britain and internationally.
1. This figure and those following are taken from E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 2.
Last updated on 4 February 2017