A ridiculous portrayal of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) appeared in the Financial Times newspaper last week.
In a column headlined “How To Stay Ahead Of The Angry Brigade”, John Kay said that revolutionaries have a “personality type” that means they enjoy conflict. He also claimed that the party was similar to Al Qaida.
He wrote that socialists were chasing after some “ill-specified change” because they didn’t really want change at all. According to Kay, they are only interested in the fight to get change.
The truth is that socialists are clear about what we want – although newspaper columnists might not like what that is.
We want workers to control the things they produce and democratically plan society to meet the needs of everyone.
We want a world that isn’t racked by war, poverty and oppression.
Kay dismisses as “verbiage” the idea that the experience of struggle and revolution are central to workers realising their potential to run society. But it is crucial.
Most people, most of the time, are not revolutionaries. They hope to improve their lives by other means – such as electing people to represent them in parliament.
Sometimes workers accept attacks because they accept the ideology of the system. So, they may think that pay cuts are inevitable during a recession.
There are a million miles between this situation and one where workers are running society for themselves. How do we move from one to the other?
The reality of society shapes people’s ideas.
Workers produce everything under capitalism and work dominates our lives. But all the key decisions over what is produced, how much is produced, how it is done and what happens to it afterwards are out of our hands.
Karl Marx referred to the lack of control over the things we produce as “alienation”. People feel like cogs in a machine and this hits our confidence about what we are capable of.
Alienation combines with the dominant ideas under capitalism that justify the current system.
This ideology says that capitalism is the best way to run society, that everyone has their place and that we should leave important decisions to “experts”.
Capitalism today peddles the myth that everyone has an equal chance in life – ignoring barriers such as class, race or sex. If you fail it’s your fault.
Schools play an important role in driving these ideas down into society. From birth and throughout education working class children are taught about hierarchy and discipline. Constant testing tells them they are not worth much and instills competition as if it was something natural.
The media plays its role too. It often portrays working class people either as irresponsible “chavs” with a propensity to violence and alcoholism, or well-off and satisfied with their lot.
The implication is that such people could not run society or even want to.
Workers’ feelings of powerlessness combine with the dominant ideology to shape our ideas. But ideas can change when workers fight back and question the structures and injustices of capitalism.
They start to have different experiences that challenge the ideas they previously took for granted.
In struggle, people start to see other workers as allies, rather than competitors or an enemy because of their nationality, skin colour or sex.
Most importantly, they begin to realise their own potential.
People who never thought they could speak in public find themselves doing just that.
Last year workers occupied Visteon car parts plants in Britain and Northern Ireland after the company sacked them.Many had not taken industrial action before in their lives.
Suddenly they were drawing up picket rotas, securing the buildings, organising food and donations, and sending speakers to meetings and workplaces across the country.
Greece has seen a huge upsurge in recent months against austerity measures being imposed by the government and Europe’s elite.
Workers’ long-held ideas are being thrown into flux as they strike and resist the very government they elected late last year.
And struggles for reforms can sometimes spill over into revolutionary movements. In a revolutionary upsurge, new kinds of organisation come into existence on a huge scale. Workers plan the running of the whole of society.
This brings in questions of democracy – how to resolve disputes, and so on. Revolutions unleash the potential that is crushed by capitalism.
Revolutions happen at times of serious social crisis. They are a process – and their success depends on what happens during that period.
A small band of committed revolutionaries won’t bring about a new, socialist world. The mass activity of millions of workers will.
As Karl Marx put it, “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.”
There are two reasons why revolutions have to be made by the majority of workers.
The first is that it won’t succeed any other way. The working class has the economic power and the numbers to create and build a new society.
The second reason is that it is only by creating such a society themselves that workers will throw off all the backward ideas they have grown up with.
In a revolution, there will be many arguments about which way forward. Workers may overthrow one government but leave the class structure intact. Fury at the system can lead in other directions and workers can lash out at each other.
The ruling class relies upon the fragmentation and lack of confidence among the working class to shore up its power. Struggle can overcome these issues – but a pause in the momentum can let them sneak back.
The intervention and leadership of organised revolutionaries – such as the SWP – is critical.
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “The working class, not the party, makes the revolution, but the party guides the working class.
“Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
Political organisation is a vital part of drawing people together to fight for ideas and the correct strategy in the movement.
Unfortunately, making a successful revolution isn’t simply a matter of defeating ideas that say no radical change is possible – but also defeating the power of the capitalist state.
The defenders of capitalism say that revolution is violent because revolutionaries love violence. And it’s true that revolutions can be violent.
But this is because the ruling class, a tiny minority of society, refuses to accept the will of the majority and launches all-out war to defend its privileges.
Capitalism’s supporters forget to mention that violence is an integral part of their system, with destructive wars, police brutality and cuts to vital services and benefits, which all destroy lives.
During revolutions, the violence of the ruling class is always far worse than that of the workers.
If the working class fails to use sufficient force to defeat the ruling class then worse bloodshed will follow. As Saint-Just said during the French Revolution, “Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave.”
In the revolutionary uprising in Chile in the 1970s, workers and peasants stopped short of seizing power from their rulers. The response was brutal. All they had gained was drowned in blood by a coup.
Some conclude that the might of the state makes revolution impossible.
But the entire personnel of the state is a minority compared to the size of the working class. The stronger and better organised the workers, the less violence there will be.
Some people hope that we can reform the system and avoid confronting the state. Struggles can and do win reforms. But as long as society remains in the hands of an elite, it will always try to claw back any gains we make.
While we can win some reforms, we can’t reform away the exploitation, alienation, racism, imperialism and all the other filth at the heart of capitalism. We will only end these things by getting rid of class society.
Capitalism has developed the means to meet the needs of every person on the planet – but it fails millions of people. Reforms leave in place an increasingly brutal system that is threatening the survival of the planet.
That’s why we need a revolution to win true liberation.
What the FT said
John Kay claims that the Socialist Workers Party “distinguishes itself from rivals by insisting that revolution is the only acceptable route to the ill‑specified change it seeks.
“...for the Socialist Workers, the objective is the process of change.
“And this is not so unusual.
“In the unlikely event that the US became an Islamic fundamentalist society, Al Qaida would doubtless continue jihad.
“It would simply take the view that the US was the wrong kind of Islamic fundamentalist society…
“The confrontation is the end in itself.
“That is why you cannot negotiate with Al Qaida and the Socialist Workers, and they are vague about what they want because their worst nightmare is that they might be given it.”