Socialist Worker

Democracy needed at the heart of the battle

In the third part of our series Colin Barker shows how mass participation is crucial in the struggle to create a new society

Issue No. 2073

Lech Walesa speaking in Gdansk during the early days of Solidarity in Poland

Lech Walesa speaking in Gdansk during the early days of Solidarity in Poland


Central to the project of socialist revolution is the idea that working people should run every aspect of society, developing their own democratic organisations as a new form of power.

Realising that idea seems a long way off.

Yet it is foreshadowed in the way we organise our own movements, and in the way that, during popular struggles, people organise their own material and social necessities.

Victory or defeat in strikes partly depends on how they are conducted.

Lively, democratic strike committees, involving the largest number of workers in shaping the strike’s progress, are more effective than top-down organisation.

Democratic structures promote higher levels of commitment and responsibility. They give workers more opportunities for new experiences and the sense of personal and collective growth that these produce.

More workers learn, by doing it, how to conduct the struggle, speak in public, give a lead – and how to learn from mistakes.

Bureaucratically conducted strikes, including mass strikes, shut workers out from shaping their own struggles.

Workers’ democracy is not just an aim in the future. It has to be a living part of the immediate battle. As such, it is a bridge to the future.

Still more significant are those struggles where workers learn to team up with other groups by creating strike committees and similar bodies linking different workplaces.

During their 1995 strikes, rail, post and other French workers set up what they called “coordinations”, meeting to pool experiences and discuss common strategies.

This was a serious advance on the French strikes of 1968, when the union machines kept them isolated from each other.

An even higher point of development is reached when coordinating bodies bring together workers from every industry to decide policy, organise common negotiations, and connect the forces of the whole working class.

This was one of the achievements of the Clyde Workers Committee during the First World War.

Poland’s Solidarity union began as a federation of inter-factory organisations, drawing in ten million workers.

In mass movements, other issues of control also arise. They are often less noticed, but they are vital.

Organising the feeding of strikers and their families becomes a necessity. That necessity draws in new layers of people.

Controlling the flow of supplies in a town or a whole region, sometimes by liaising with local farmers and transport drivers, adds new dimensions to a mass strike.

Where workplaces are occupied, workers must develop their own security systems.

Getting hold of printing facilities to put out their own news bulletins and sometimes their own newspapers starts to challenge the capitalist media monopoly.

In the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, the Solidarity strike committee took control of the loudspeaker system. They used it to broadcast their negotiations with the regime, but also to give voice to workers’ poetry and opinions.

In Argentina, workers have taken over abandoned workplaces and started them up again under workers’ control.

The significance of all such developments, in the setting of mass struggles, is the vista they start to open up. They are early rehearsals of the actual exercise of working class power over the means of production and distribution.

The more they develop, and the larger the numbers of people they involve, the more real practical confidence can grow.

The period in the Russian Revolution between the February and October revolutions was one of “dual power”. Such periods will arise in any real popular revolution.

Dual power has a double significance.

On one hand, it is a situation where popular organisations are contesting for the control of society with the remaining structures of the capitalist state.

On the other, if they are to climax in a revolutionary overthrow of capitalist power, those popular organisations must hugely expand their relationship with the great majority in society.

A building up of working class control over more and more aspects of life, and thus a vast expansion of democratic organisation, involves a creative expansion of collective self-organisation and self-assertion.

The idea of workers’ power begins to put down roots in people’s lives.

So the preconditions of socialist revolution are created through the very processes of mass struggles.


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