Chris Harman

Education for Socialists

Knowing the enemy

(March 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.85, March 1986, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE PRESENT time is a perplexing one for revolutionary socialists.

The experience of the miners’ strike, the continuation of world crisis, and the slide of Labour away from even reformist socialist language is still pushing a minority of people to take an interest in revolutionary ideas.

Yet there are few opportunities to put those ideas into practice. For the defeats experienced by the working class movement have led to a low level of struggle, to defensive strikes that rarely enjoy success and to a shift of the majority of workers towards right wing labourism or even the Alliance Party.

This creates the great danger that enthusiasm for revolutionary socialism soon turns to defeatism, despair and cynicism, to the feeling that the real world will never change. The result can be that when the instability of the system suddenly raises the level of working class combativity (as with the series of bureaucratic mass strikes we’ve seen in a number of countries in the last couple of years), socialist organisation is so decayed as to be unable to respond.

One way to combat this danger is by involvement in whatever struggles, however defensive or however small, take place. Even in these you often get an inkling of the way in which workers can change their ideas and learn their power.

But that is not enough in itself. The dominant ideas continue to be the ideas of the ruling class. And all the time hammering it into our heads is the idea that the dream of socialism and workers’ power is impossible to achieve.

The only way to combat this is systematic education in Marxist ideas. People who are new to revolutionary socialism have to be taught the rudiments of the Marxist analysis of how society has developed and can be changed, to learn the lessons of past working class struggles, how we can understand the modern world, and the basics of the analysis of the capitalist economy.

People who have been around a little longer need continually to deepen their understanding of these matters, so that they can cope with all the arguments thrown against them.

We are on the ideological defensive and can only maintain ourselves by continually fortifying our positions.

For these reasons, the last National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party decided that our branches should give more priority than hitherto to systematic Marxist education.

But how should this be carried out?

Set-piece lectures always have a role to play. They give people a general view of the subject they deal with. That is why they are a feature of our rallies at Skegness every year and of our summer school, Marxism. But in themselves they are by no means enough.

People hear the lecturer and agree with what he or she says. But they are not usually able to put across those ideas themselves afterwards, and may well be overawed by someone else putting across opposing ideas. This means they do not have the confidence to put across socialist ideas outside the closed confines of the revolutionary organisation itself.

Two things are usually necessary to give this confidence: reading articles and books, and an opportunity to discuss the ideas in a non-intimidatory atmosphere, where you are not going to be attacked the moment you get something wrong.

Many Socialist Workers Party branches already run basic educational groups for newer members. Some also run more advanced groups for those who are more experienced.

These work best when an experienced member gives a talk and then withdraws from the room while the rest of the group discuss what he or she said. Their discussion can be guided by questions which the speaker has put to them, and they can both suggest answers to these and raise points that need clarifying. The speaker can then, after 30-40 minutes, return to the room and take part in a general report back.

If the education group is quite large (more than about 10 strong) it should split into sub-groups for the middle part of the meeting, so that everyone has the chance to join in the discussion.

People who would never dare open their mouths in front of an experienced speaker, will gladly discuss issues with a small number of other people who are equally inexperienced.

But the groups can only work really successfully if everyone at them is encouraged to do at least a minimal amount of reading.

It is here that a problem nearly always arises. Many people have never acquired the habit of reading anything more than a few hundred words at a time – it is not something which the educational system regards as important for those who are destined for most working class jobs. And even those that have, often feel they have more important things to do. So the long book lists often handed out at educational groups rarely get taken seriously.

SWP branches have been dealing with this problem in two ways: by using relatively easy to read pamphlets and books like Chris Harman’s How Marxism Works, Alex Callinicos’ Revolutionary Road to Socialism and Duncan Hallas’ book The Comintern, taking a chapter at a time, and by photocopying articles from back issues of Socialist Worker and Socialist Worker Review.

But not everyone finds they have the facilities for doing the latter. To facilitate and encourage the education groups me SWP is now beginning to produce nationally Education for Socialists packs, made up of articles that have appeared in Socialist Worker and Socialist Worker Review.

Each will be a short pamphlet containing, reprints of articles on between four and six different, related topics, so providing the framework for a corresponding number of group meetings (groups are rarely able to maintain a regular attendance of their members for longer than this). Questions will be provided to guide the discussion on each article, and there will be suggestions for further reading.

Socialist Worker Party branches will be able to order the packs, in bulk order of four or five copies at a time, direct from the SWP national office.

The first packs will be concerned with quite basic questions: the Marxist view of the modern world (imperialism, state capitalism, permanent revolution, national liberation movements, Zionism and anti-semitism); strategy and tactics for revolutionaries; centrism, ultra-leftism and terrorism; women’s oppression and the family.

But we hope to be able to follow these up with material aimed at encouraging deeper and more wide ranging discussion among people who already have a basic understanding.

Last updated on 11 April 2010