First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 11, 1976
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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The purpose of this article is mainly to argue against JBs formulation in MLQ #10 about who the ’advanced workers’ are. JB says they are ”those elements who still actively identify with the Labour Party and the struggle for democracy, and the implementation of conference decisions, who in fact present the greatest potential for communist ideas because of their experiences and contacts”. (p.23). This formulation will be criticised specifically later in the article.
The major error in JBs article – and this is also a criticism of all the articles in the polemic on social democracy – is that it fails completely to come to grips with the fundamental question of what is the material basis of the strength of reformist and social-democratic ideology within the proletariat. This must be clearly identified, before going on to confront the contradictions currently within the working class and before identifying which sections of the working class are the most advanced.
At this time in Britain social democratic ideology must be clearly seen as the major enemy within the proletariat. It is the ideology which constantly attempts to divert the proletariat from its historical task of revolution; it is the ideology which denies the primacy of class contradiction in this society; it is the ideology of the bourgeoisie, and its material basis is the British bourgeoisie’s imperialist plunder of other countries. The historical role of imperialism is to alleviate and delay the crisis inherent in capitalism by
1) creating new markets for commodities
2) creating new opportunities for investment
3) providing new cheap raw materials
4) providing cheap new sources of labour-power.
For a limited time, this strategy is successful for the capitalists. The conditions are favourable for expansion of industry, increased demand for commodities and, of course, increased profits. Imperialism allows the development and extension of bourgeois democracy within the heartlands of imperialism by the ability to grant economic reforms demanded by workers.
The British working class as a whole began to organise itself into trade unions at the same time as the British bourgeoisie was in its imperialist heyday. The super profits squeezed out of the oppressed countries paid for the improved living and working conditions of the proletariat at home. Without this, the proletariat could never have been led into a general acceptance of economic reform as the solution to their own exploitation and oppression.
This, then, is the importance of social democratic ideology to the bourgeoisie. Before imperialist expansion capitalism granted reforms to only a relatively small section of skilled workers in order to identify their interests with those of the bourgeoisie; imperialism and its super-profits created the conditions for extending these reforms to the whole of the working class. The obvious reason for the bourgeoisie is that it is always in the interests of a ruling class to rule by consent rather than force, whenever that is possible. Turning the whole of the proletariat into “labour aristocracy” of the world laid the basis for the deep contamination of the class by reformism, and laid the basis for an essentially docile workforce.
In recent years, because of the unrelenting struggles of the people of the world against imperialist domination, the capitalist crisis has become more acute. But now there are few, – if any – opportunities for new markets, etc. So the crisis is pushed onto the backs of the workers in the imperialist countries with the evident results of unemployment, wage freezes, cuts in social spending, etc.
The fact that social democracy can still generally hold its own, even without the material crumbs that have been used in the past to back it up, shows just how pervasive and deep rooted is the ideological corruption of the proletariat. So, many workers agree to “tighten their belts” in the “national interest” – NOT to give up the fight, but to limit the fight to the arena provided and recognised by the bourgeoisie and its state. In doing this the workers are forfeiting their own class interests for those of the bourgeoisie.
This analysis is not presented as an argument for not involving in the struggle against social democracy, quite the opposite; it is an argument for combatting social democracy in the correct way and in the correct arenas. JB and DJ fail in their understanding of the arena of struggle. It is not our immediate task to defeat social democracy in the working class, but to win over and rally those who have already rejected many aspects, of social democracy to proletarian politics and organisation. This is why we struggle against the ’traitors to the class’ in the trade unions, etc.
JB correctly quotes Lenin’s advice that we must not refrain from activity “right in the midst of the proletarian masses”. DJ correctly says that we cannot “stand aside from the struggle for Trade Union direction”. Of course not. It is our duty to bring Marxist-Leninist politics into the every day lives and struggles of the workers, precisely in order to lead the “struggles against the traitors to the working class”. But, objectively, what JB is condoning is working right in the midst – not of the struggles against the traitors – but of the traitors themselves. We must work in Trade Unions to get rank and file support for our exposure of bourgeois ideology. We cannot see our priority as winning over those who still have strong illusions in that ideology, and are actively carrying it out.
Advanced workers must be seen as those who are the most politically advanced at this stage – those who are most aware of their exploitation and oppression that they suffer under capitalism, AND who are disillusioned with bourgeois solutions and parties. Without Marxist-Leninist leadership such people can, and will, sink into apathy and cynicism, distrusting all ’politicians’. While in itself this is a bad thing, and can lead to demoralisation and defeatism, the positive aspects of it are dominant – they have to one degree or another seen through the farce of social democracy and its inability to significantly improve their lives. With correct leadership these people will become the real proletarian “activists” and fight defiantly for their class interests against bourgeois ideology.
These are the people who ”present the greatest potential for communist ideas”. Present levels of activity and militancy are not, in themselves, indications of class consciousness – rather correct practice and proletarian militancy will stem from a correct class stand.
Trade union branch meetings are not the only arenas of class struggle, though they are important. The major arena for our struggle must be the shop floor. We work in the Trade Unions not to be super-militants, but to learn to apply Marxism-Leninism to the concrete situation of the work place. Our main task is to seek out, develop and organise, the most advanced elements. It is precisely the social democratic practice that means that many workers, although having been disillusioned with social democracy, will not attend branch meetings regularly. That is why we must go deeper and deeper into the ranks of the proletariat to organise these elements into communist cells. This is our main task – to draw clear lines of demarcation with social democracy, to take a clear unwavering stand on the side of the proletariat, to carry out the building of communist cells at the place of work. Until that has been achieved, and until these cells have built the respect for our political stand, then emphasis on the seeking of official positions in the trade union meeting is diversionary.
So, while we are in what has been called ’the first historical stage’ – that of winning over the vanguard – we will rarely have the political strength and deep roots in the masses to lead mass struggle.
Our current task is primarily propagandist: to spread ’many ideas’ on a whole range of questions among the ’few’ whose respect we have earned.
In order to develop and win leadership over these workers we must clearly distinguish ourselves from social democratic activists and militants, and from all self-name revolutionaries, who constantly shore up social-democratic ideology by putting demands on it and making deals with it.
At the present stage of a generally low political consciousness within the proletariat we gain credibility for ourselves initially by our style of work, and only later by our general political line.
To win support and respect from the grass root workers, it is important for communists to be A) honest to the workers by 1) not hiding our own politics, 2) not making opportunist errors of failing to tell workers of problems and mistakes in order to be accepted; E) hardworking – to be prepared to be involved in the mundane tasks and not just seek the limelight; C) reliable – to consistently apply Marxism-Leninism and to make our positions clear even when we are in the minority, and not to waver from that position; D) democratic – not to wheel and deal behind people’s backs, not to pack meetings or use bureaucratic procedures to determine the outcome of a struggle. This means being prepared by investigation to educate the workers with the facts, and strive to lead them to a correct decision, rather than reply on powers of argument and rhetoric; E) to be real activist – not to do everything ’on behalf of the workers – but to lead them in their own activity. A Communist activist must always be engaged in trying to build up a cell of activists at work; F) to be a ’tribune of the people’ – to make concrete investigation of conditions of the workers, to determine what workers are most concerned about, what the specific issues are at any time. It is through struggles on specific issues that communists must break down any economist tendency and struggle for a political perspective.
It is only by such an open and simple method of work that we can sink roots deep in the proletariat and become trusted by them. It is only by such a method of work that we can expose all the reactionary elements in the proletariat. As DE correctly pointed out (MLQ #10 Vote Labour is Tailism) one of the strongest aspects of social-democratic ideology is the stress it lays on a docile and passive working class. The contradiction between this passivity and the working class spontaneous struggle to defend and improve its material conditions is generally resolved by throwing up ’leaders’ from the ranks of the working class to take on themselves the responsibility of struggling against the individual capitalists or the state.
In this way the representatives of the workers become isolated, and coerced into working and thinking entirely within the apparatus of the bourgeois state. This can only serve to increase the pressure of social-democratic ideology on those ’leaders’ and it is not surprising that they often become the most hard-bitten reformists, seeing themselves, and being seen by the workers, as “saviours from on high”. Only the mass involvement and activity of the grass roots can withstand such pressure, by teaching the workers the collective power that they have to act independently and in the firm interests of their own class.
The fruits of imperialism laid the basis for the spreading of social democratic ideology deeply throughout the proletariat: the material benefits to workers masked the bourgeois and repressive aspects of that ideology. With the increasing crisis of imperialism in the world social democracy is being forced more and more openly to take up its stand alongside the overtly bourgeois ideologies, and is in fact dominating them as the only means of alleviating the present crisis. To do this it is becoming more repressive to the workers and relying on the deep rootedness of reformism in the class to maintain good relations and cooperation; even without many of the material bases of the past. Those workers actively fighting for social democracy are the ones most taken in by the ideology and most blind to the erosion of the conditions for workers. We must break through the superficial ’activity’ and go deeper into the proletariat to seek out those who have ceased to support a system and a party that they can see does not serve their interests.
At present there is no alternative. Our present main task is to build the alternative ideology and organisation. We must rally and activate these advanced elements around communist-led cells that uncompromisingly oppose all forms of oppression and exploitation, and uncompromisingly expose the main ideological enemy – social democracy – ’right’ and ’left’.