Socialist Worker

Does movement need parties?

Judy Cox looks at another of the arguments around the European Social Forum

Issue No. 1816

MANY PEOPLE are deeply hostile to mainstream political parties, and rightly so. They are utterly fed up with political leaders who lie and spin, who ignore their views and shamelessly promote the interests of big business. Others are suspicious of all political organisations. They fear that parties will seek to impose their own agenda on any campaign and use it for their own ends.

Many anti-capitalist activists have reacted against failures and betrayals of official politics by organising in new ways, with more democracy and no leaders. The Italian writer Antonio Negri, whose ideas hold a lot of influence within the anti-capitalist movement, has written an article advocating a 'movement of the movements' to establish new forms of political expression. The diversity of views and ways of expressing them are a huge strength within the movement.

It would be madness to impose conditions on activists and groups in the movement before agreeing to work with them. This would have led to a much weaker anti-war movement in Britain, for example. But within any movement a whole range of different and opposing views are thrown up. People take sides in these arguments.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci made the point that even when people reject the label of parties they coalesce around arguments. After the murder of Carlo Giuliani during the anti-capitalist protests in Genoa last year arguments broke out. Some groups argued that protesters should not march the next day, others that we should limit the protests and others that the demonstration needed to be the biggest show of strength and outrage possible.

Some 300,000 people marched. But the inspiration of that day depended on activists winning the argument. Politics surface in every campaign - in debates about what tactics should be adopted, whether to appeal to people in authority or to other activists, and so on. To take the movement forward in these political debates takes organisation and, crucially, socialist parties.

Organisation makes it possible to generalise the most successful initiatives across the whole movement and avoid strategies that do not work. It is quite right to reject the whole idea of 'politics' as something a minority of leaders hand down to a passive membership.

But to be effective, any movement has to be able to discuss issues, clarify ideas, make decisions and then act. Ideas are just as important as activity in shaping every struggle. Some take the movement forward. Others confuse people and lead down blind allies.

So, for example, at the European Social Forum there will be people with very pro-establishment views as well as committed anti-capitalists and socialists. Some groups, including some on the left of the movement, tried to stop political parties formally organising in the European Social Forum. They would have prevented the far left political groups from organising but it would not have stopped parties like the Democratic Left, Italy's Labour Party, from playing a key role.

Professional politicians may have experience and confidence and appeal to some 'common-sense' ideas. But they want to lead people back to the passivity and compromise of mainstream politics. To challenge this depends on building an active movement where people can learn from their own experiences.

It also requires a theoretical response. Mistakes made at the level of ideas can have just as bad an effect on the movement as mistaken tactics. For example, where anti-war movements accepted the idea that Islamic fundamentalism was as big a threat as US imperialism, the mobilisations were smaller than elsewhere.

Socialist organisation is shaped by the society we live in. It cannot be an attempt to live today as we might in a socialist society of tomorrow. We cannot simply disassociate ourselves from the society we live in - we have to change that society.

To do that we need to organise in a certain way. We need to be centralised because the bosses, their police and army are centralised as we saw on the streets of Genoa. A socialist organisation is not the movement. It is part of the movement, one that is inspired by the activity of thousands of other activists and the great protests in Seattle, Seville and Johannesburg. And it wants to take the movement forward.

The key thing for socialists like Karl Marx, and later Lenin, was that socialist organisations learn from those who are fighting back just as much as they teach them. They based their organisations on the self activity of the majority of ordinary working class people in society.

And they showed how creative ways of fighting and tight organisation complement each other. The birth of social movements represents a huge opening up of the possibility of challenging capitalism. But the bigger and more effective a socialist party is, the more chance we have of tipping the balance decisively. That is what the Socialist Workers Party is trying to do today.

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Sat 7 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1816
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