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We need a party of leaders to change the world

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 1901

Last week we argued that it is movements from below that can change the world. They draw their power from their capacity to mobilise large numbers of people. Movements provide most of the energy and creativity involved in great challenges to our rulers. The overthrow of capitalism will involve an immense movement from below. It will engage the self transforming activity of millions of working people, struggling for economic, political and cultural power.

Such a movement, developing its own democratic organisations from below, will provide the first bases for a new constitution of society.

However there is a problem. Such movements are mixed and contradictory in their character. Great movements are not composed of people who all think and act the same way. How simple life would be if that were the case! In reality movements are full of all manner of opposed tendencies. While some voices urge more militancy, others urge moderation. Arguments for unity battle with arguments for division. Just as new forms of struggle emerge, some voices hark back to old ways of understanding and action.

That’s why revolutionary socialists need to organise themselves into a party to argue their case within movements. If they don’t, other tendencies or parties will prevail-and hold the movement back, or lead it to defeat. But what kind of party? The task determines the form. Most parties see social change occurring through parliament. They divide their membership into two unequal parts-MPs and councillors, and the rank and file. The first group does the politics, while the rest work to get them elected.

At best, such parties aim to make things slightly better on behalf of the working class. They have a top-down view of politics. They are hierarchical and undemocratic. The Labour Party is typical, with the leadership regularly ignoring their own party conferences.

For socialists, only an organised workers’ movement from below can change the world. That project requires a very different kind of party. Its job is to encourage movements to make their own advances, to win their own power.

Revolutionary socialism involves a different conception of what politics is about. The job of socialists is to intervene actively in movements and struggles, always seeking to advance working class strength and understanding.

The socialist aim is to draw all the best fighters in the unions, in the anti-war, anti-fascist and other movements, into a shared socialist organisation. Most of the time-apart, that is, from genuinely revolutionary situations-socialist organisations draw in only a minority of those active in movements and struggles. For most people, the prospect of socialist transformation of society seems remote from the everyday world.

Socialist activity demands a level of commitment which makes participation in socialist organisations a minority activity, involving a process of self selection among militants. That commitment only makes sense as part of a shared understanding of capitalism-as the key source of all human problems in the world, and as a form of society that will not last for ever.

Socialist activity can be understood as a mixture of two kinds of work- ‘propaganda’ and ‘agitation’. Propaganda means, in essence, explaining and discussing every kind of social and political question in socialist terms. It involves putting across quite complex ideas, and winning people to a shared socialist vision.

For socialists, questions of ‘theory’ are immensely important, for two reasons. First, most movements focus on ‘single issues’-pay and conditions, war, anti-racism, the environment, gay rights, and so on. They deal with symptoms rather than causes. Socialists need to show the interconnections between these issues and the capitalist system that breeds the problems. Second, the history of the workers’ movement and other movements is full of important lessons about defeats and victories.

How do we know that racism or imperialism damage working class organisation? How do we know the rank and file must organise independently of the union bureaucracy? How do we know that the best way to oppose fascists is to build a united front? The short answer is, from the experience of past movements.

If those lessons are forgotten, it is easy to repeat the mistakes of the past. One job of socialist organisation is to act like a ‘memory bank’ for working class struggle. But propaganda alone is not enough. In the end, what counts are ordinary workers’ practical experiences of organising themselves effectively, building movements, winning practical victories. The everyday struggle involves immediate, tactical questions. It involves organising, whether for strikes or anti-fascist leafleting or mobilising an anti-war demonstration. ‘Agitation’ is all of these things and more.

Propaganda and agitation alike involve active socialist intervention in and around movements. Doing that effectively requires a high level of democratic debate among socialists. The class struggle proceeds by way of twists and turns. Real movements go up and down. There are constant debates and arguments about the best way forward. Often it’s not immediately clear how we should respond to new situations that the struggle constantly throws up.

To be effective, socialists need to constantly evaluate the changing conditions, to work out how best to organise and act. For that, ongoing democratic debate, where we exchange our views and experiences, and decide together is vital. In ‘normal’ political parties, decisions about strategy and tactics are left to a few leaders. Socialist organisation needs to involve every member in debate and decision. A socialist organisation is not divided into ‘leaders’ and ‘rank and file’, but is made up of people who work to give a lead in their own situation-in their anti-war group, in their workplace or union branch.

Constant democratic debate is a practical necessity. But there is also the need for direction and coordination, a question I will turn to next week.

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