Socialist Worker

Are political parties all the same?

Joseph Choonara starts our new series by looking at what makes a revolutionary party different

Issue No. 2143

You’ve decided that the capitalist system breeds poverty, oppression and war. You know that this system has to be overthrown to secure real change. You agree that mass movements are the engines that drive history. What next?

The aim of this series of columns is not to persuade you that capitalism is bad, that socialism is a good idea or that revolution is necessary. Their aim is to convince you that you should join our revolutionary party – the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

For many of those fighting against the horrors produced by capitalism, the whole concept of a political party is suspect.

In England there are three mainstream parties with agendas that sometimes seem indistinguishable – New Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

All are capable of sleaze and spin, and all are committed to the smooth functioning of the capitalist system, as are the nationalists in Wales and Scotland.

Even if we look at “Old Labour”, there is a lengthy history of sell-outs and betrayals in which the “national interest” was put before the interests of workers.

Labour governments have used troops to smash strikes more often than Tory ones. They have failed to wage war on the rich at home – and have waged wars on the poor abroad.

There are other kinds of party, such as the Green Party, that exist on the fringes of the system.

But these parties are rarely capable of breaking through into the mainstream. When they do it tends to be through compromise.

Then there are the old‑style Communist Parties – monolithic, top-down and Stalinist – that sullied the name of communism for generations.

Finally, there are countless left wing groups that stand on the sidelines of the struggle, handing out leaflets with strident headlines such as “General Strike Now” or “Why We Are Not Marching”.

All of this, quite understandably, gives parties a bad name.

But revolutionary parties such as the SWP are different. They differ in their composition, in how they organise and in what they aim to do.

Building a socialist organisation poses a difficult question. Who should be in it? Include too broad a range of people and you dilute the politics.

For instance, the Labour Party historically sought to gain the backing of all workers – including those with sexist and racist ideas. This is one factor making it hard for the party to challenge such views.

If you include too few people in your party, there is another danger – that of turning the party into a tiny sect, capable of relating only to itself and other sects.

A revolutionary party should be made up of the most advanced sections of the working class, those who have broken with the mainstream ideas of capitalist society.

And it must forge a dialogue with workers who have not yet broken with those ideas, through strikes, anti-war movements, community struggles and anti-racist campaigns.

In such struggles non-revolutionary workers often begin to change their way of thinking, while revolutionary workers can try to prove that they have the sharpest understanding of the world and the best methods of fighting to change it.

A party based on the most advanced sections of the working class must be democratic if it is to capture the experiences of revolutionary workers.

Members should come together to discuss tactics, ideas and lessons of the struggle. After such discussion decisions can be reached, if necessary through voting.

But the party has to be centralised as well. It must be able to act in unison once a decision is reached.

And it must have a leadership that has earned sufficient trust from the membership to make quick decisions when necessary and be held to account by members once the opportunity arises.

Finally, the revolutionary party is designed to do something very different from the mainstream socialist parties.

Their parties represent “socialism from above”. They embody the idea that an enlightened minority can change the system on behalf of the masses or run it in a slightly more equitable manner.

Ours is a party of “socialism from below”. Fundamental change arises when a deep social crisis leads the masses to take to the stage of history, creating new democratic institutions to reorganise society.

In this situation it becomes possible to draw in the vast majority of workers without diluting the political ideas.


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