Duncan Hallas

Theory and Practice

(February 1972)

From the International Socialism, Internal Bulletin, February 1972.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford, September 2012.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The document Where are we going? merits serious discussion. It contains, in my opinion, a mistaken, because one-sided, view of the nature of a marxist revolutionary organisation. It is a view that crops up from time to time in the organisation and which was especially widespread in 1968. It can be best summarised as underestimation of the need for political leadership – both by the organisation and within the organisation.

The comrades have a firm grip on some important truths, namely the importance of the ‘spontaneous’ activities of workers, of the necessity for the organisation to connect with these and to learn from them. But these truths are only part of the reality and an exaggerated and one-sided emphasis of them can lead to results every bit as damaging as the ‘vanguardism’ of the SLL.

The point can be illustrated by looking at an amendment to the perspectives document submitted by Durham, which contains the same mistakes in concentrated form.

“From the situation of workers in struggle grows our understanding of capitalism and how to fight it. Therefore IS must have deep roots at local level and it is from this level that its politics must come ...’

Now, as it stands this is simply untrue. Our understanding and our politics are based, first of all, on the work of the great marxist thinkers and upon the rich experience of the communist movement over 130 years or more. They are based on theory, on the distillation of the experience of generations of thinkers and fighters. This theory has to be studied and mastered. It does not at all arise ‘spontaneously’ from the day to day experience of ‘workers in struggle’. (Where are we going?)

Certainly this or any other theory is sterile if it is divorced from practice. Certainly the organisation has to learn from the experience of workers in the struggle. But it also has to teach, to transmit the tradition, the strategies and the tactics developed by the movement from Marx’s day onwards. It has to apply theory – the generalisation of an immense amount of practice – to each particular struggle.

We do not start with a blank page. Take any particular question, for example whether we should encourage militants to leave reactionary unions, and our starting point is not the ‘day to day experience’ of the workers in the struggle. This may well lead them, as at Pilkingtons to adopt a course of action – forming a breakaway union in this case – that we know or ought to know in tactically disastrous. We know it, or ought to know it, because we have mastered the historical experience, because we have learned from the experience of past militants.

The transmission and application of this experience is one of the important reasons that we need a party, an organisation that teaches its militants the lessons derived from an experience infinitely wider and more many-sided than that of any particular group of workers. And if this is true even of tactical questions it is even more true of the marxian world outlook which places capitalism in the context of the whole historical development of the human race, which is based on a synthesis of the work of the progressive thinkers of many centuries. It is the most outrageous elitism to imagine that any group of people now living – whether workers or intellectuals – can replace this heritage with their own experience.

This historical and theoretical tradition is, in the nature of the case, very unevenly distributed in a marxist organisation. We are all products, in part of our various environments. We may be intellectuals with a considerable knowledge of the body of marxist writing but little or no direct experience of the class struggle. We may be workers with a great deal of practical experience of the struggle but with only a very scanty knowledge of marxian theory. And we may be people without any serious personal experience of either theory or practice.

This is one of the reasons why the organisation must be centralised and not a mere federation of local or regional groups. It must be centralised, taking its major policy decisions on a national basis (an international basis is the ideal) so that those with more knowledge and experience in a particular field, influence those with less, so that the organisation, as a collective, maximises the strengths and minimises the weaknesses of its members, so that this is a fusion of theory and practice. Far from it being the case that ‘to insist on centralised decision making is to refuse to learn from the experience of workers in struggle’ (Where are we going?) it is only by centralised decision making (on the major political questions) that this experience can be related to the tasks of the movement and made available to other workers and to comrades who are not workers.

In fact the comrades themselves recognise this when they praise Socialist Worker. For of all the activities of the group the production of Socialist Worker is the most highly centralised. A mere handful of comrades decide what appears in the paper from week to week. Neither the branches, nor the NC, nor the EC edit the paper, nor could they. What ensures that Socialist Worker is relevant to the needs of the movement is simply that the two or three comrades who decide its content are part of the political leadership of the organisation. They are regularly involved in the political discussions on the EC and NC which take into account the experience of many areas and sections and seek to generalise them and to give a lead to workers in the light of both the current experiences and the theoretical heritage.

In a short space it is impossible to take up all the points made by the comrades. Their general drift can be summed up as a reversion to spontaneism, more specifically, as a version of the case Bakunin argued against Marx. This case leads logically to federalism (local autonomy) in organisational questions. And this in turn, as Marx argued, leads the replacement of a known, elected and accountable leadership by a secret, informal, and unaccountable leadership. For leadership there must be, given the uneven nature of the working class in terms of knowledge, experience and capacity, leadership of the working class by its best sections (the party) and leadership within the organisation because it too inevitably reflects the unevenness of the class. An essential duty of the leadership – which includes not simply those who sit on committees but the whole political cadre of the organisation, those who have mastered the elements of marxism and learned to apply them – is to strive continuously to reduce the unevenness, to raise the level of the membership and of its periphery. This involves a fight for Marxist politics in the organisation.

Two final points. The line of the document Where are we going? is fundamentally wrong. Nevertheless it contains some correct and impartial statements. The comrades are certainly right when they stress the need for the organisation to ‘maximise the involvement of rank and file members’. Indeed the objective should be to abolish the ‘rank and file’, to assimilate the membership into the leadership – in the sense of the political cadre. It is a task that can never be wholly achieved but which must always be aimed at.

The question of how the National Committee, the formal embodiment of the leadership, should be elected, can only be considered in the light of its role. The problem is how to ensure that the best, politically firmest and most experienced comrades are elected. The NC needs a well-balanced selection of experiences in industry, in theory and so on. No system thus far devised ensures a solution. In the last resort the quality of the NC depends upon the maturity of the membership and specifically of the delegates who elect it. There may well be a case for electing a proportion of the committee on a regional basis. But if this were to be adopted the members so elected would be in no sense delegates from localities and certainly not recallable except by the organisation as a whole through a conference. Their job, like that of any other NC member, would be to serve the organisation as a whole to the best of their judgement and ability.

The only real guarantee of a democratic internal life in the organisation is the political capacity of the membership, the only real guarantee of the will of the majority prevailing is centralism, the organisation speaking with one voice, the voice of the majority through its elected representatives who are, of course, subject to annual re-election.


Duncan Hallas

Last updated on 15.9.2012