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Is there any place for parties in the movement?

This article is over 19 years, 11 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles
Issue 1900

Man y people in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements agree with us on general principles. They agree that socialists must oppose all forms of oppression. They agree that any movement against capitalism must involve the initiative, energy and imagination of millions of organised workers. They agree we must unite the widest forces against the fascist BNP. They utterly oppose the Tory party and don’t trust the Liberal Democrats. Mostly, they know the Labour Party offers no way forward.

But numbers of them don’t agree that we need to build a revolutionary party. One reason is that their experience tells them parties are not be trusted. Instead they look to movements to change the world. And, in one sense, they are correct.

What sort of force makes popular revolutions? The answer, always, is great social movements from below. Victory was only achieved by the parliamentary side in the English Civil War in the 17th century thanks to repeated interventions by movements of working artisans, who pushed the anti-royalist forces forward. The ‘sans-culottes’ pushed the French Revolution to the left.

It was Russian workers, peasants and soldiers who made the Russian Revolution. It is the same story in every subsequent popular revolution, up to and including the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. Great social movements invent new forms of organisation-soldiers’ parliaments, strike committees, workers’ councils, neighbourhood ‘soviets’, the Chilean ‘cordones’ and the like. These develop out of the needs of the immediate struggle, but also represent in outline the beginnings of a new form of society, more democratically controlled from below.

Such bodies-just like trade unions, local groups of anti-war or civil rights activists or anti-fascists, tenants bodies, and so on-are the building blocks of real movements. When they are effective they seek to include everyone involved in a specific struggle to maximise unity in action.

Central to revolutionary socialism is the idea that real movements are what change the world. We can only begin a socialist society through the transformative activity of the great majority of workers, fighting for their own demands and developing their own organisations.

By itself, however, that idea is insufficient. In the real world, actual movements are made up of all manner of tendencies and impulses. The movement against the Iraq war, for example, included people with many different kinds of ideas-not least about how the anti-war movement itself should develop. As every trade union activist knows by experience, her fellow-workers include reliable militants and would-be scabs, and a host of positions in between.

We can’t understand movements unless we see them as fields of ongoing debate and argument. Those arguments are partly about what sense we make of the world, but especially about what can and should be done. Is it best to lobby the powerful, trying to persuade them to change their ways? Or should we build powerful militant movements, challenging the very right of the powerful to make decisions?

Are the issues over which we struggle separate from each other, or all they all interconnected-and if so, how? Can we learn from the mistakes and victories of movements in other countries?

Around these and many other questions, different forms of answer regularly appear. All manner of groupings emerge within movements, sometimes linked to outside bodies (parties, faiths, professions and so on), each representing a proposal.

Some of these proposals will derail the movement. Some demobilise its forces. Some sow division within the movement. Some seek to narrow its scope. If socialists do not organise to present their view, others will prevail. Time and again the absence of a clear socialist argument has led to terrible defeats. The bureaucracy of the French Communist Party was able to contain and divide the movement of May 1968. Right wing mullahs were able to seize the leadership of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. History is full of such examples.

Even with an avowedly socialist government in office, as in Chile in 1973, sharp problems arise. The army officers of the old regime remained in place, providing a base for brutal counter-revolution. Only an organised movement among workers to replace the old state machine with one directly accountable to working people could have prevented disaster.

Some people suggest that the solution is to rely on the ‘spontaneity’ of popular revolt, to sweep away all obstacles. No question, every great movement does release huge ‘spontaneous’ explosions of popular creativity and imagination. But there is spontaneity and spontaneity.

‘Spontaneously’, millions of workers continue to vote for conservative parties. Spontaneously, the struggle with employers produces not just union organisation, but also scabs. Spontaneously, reformist ideas compete with revolutionary ideas. Actual movements are not ‘homogeneous’-in other words, those who make them up are not all the same, and don’t all think the same. Within and around them many organised voices compete for attention and support.

It is an elementary principle, therefore, that revolutionary socialists should organise themselves and seek ways to present their own arguments. At the heart of those arguments, they always argue for maximum unity in action, for the widest internationalism, for militant self activity by the exploited and oppressed.


  • Next week we’ll ask, what sort of party organisation is appropriate? Send questions and comments to [email protected]


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