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Do activists really need to join a party?

This article is over 15 years, 1 months old
In the second part of our series Joseph Choonara explores the need for revolutionary organisation
Issue 2144

Last week I set out the differences between a revolutionary socialist party and a mainstream socialist party.

Crucially, revolutionary parties are based on the idea that workers can transform the world through their own struggles.

But if this is the case, why join a revolutionary party such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)?

It is perfectly possible to build an anti-war movement, go on strike, demonstrate and so on without being in a party. And it is certainly possible to participate in a revolution without joining a party.

Every great revolution breaks out as a sudden explosion of rage. This happens when society enters a profound crisis, perhaps produced by war or economic upheaval.

Such struggles are often called “spontaneous” because nobody gives an order for people to come out on to the streets. In fact they are the product of millions of different decisions by different individuals.

Groups gather together, whether formally or informally. Discussions and arguments break out about what to do. Someone wins the argument.

Those arguing for action are more likely to win if they organise themselves.

In a sense, this means that they are forming themselves into a “party”, even if only for the duration of the crisis.

But being in an organisation that operates across different areas of a country, and that can exist for many years before any upsurge, goes beyond this.

The revolutionary party has been called “the memory of the class”. It embodies the lessons learnt by previous generations of workers in their struggles.

Newspapers, leaflets, books, meetings and conferences can share this knowledge with new workers, freeing them from the need to relearn everything from scratch.

Such vital lessons can also be spread geographically.

If workers in Dundee occupy their workplace and prevent its closure in the face of a recession, the party can rapidly transmit this information to other cities and towns.

Newspapers such as Socialist Worker can generalise the experience of groups of workers, setting out the most valuable lessons in a manner untainted by any concern for “unbiased reporting”.

Revolutionary newspapers are openly biased in favour of workers – while the mainstream media has a covert bias in favour of the bosses.

The way revolutionaries operate necessitates certain forms of organisation.

The workers who make up the party must be able to democratically debate their experiences. And the party also has to be centralised so that it acts in unity once a conclusion is arrived at.

Such a method of organisation should strengthen every struggle by workers and the oppressed.

But its advantages become most apparent in the course of a revolution itself. Revolutions may start “spontaneously”, but none has ever ended this way.

The great revolts of the 20th century saw workers create new organs of democratic power, known as “workers’ councils” or “soviets”.

These form the beginnings of a new kind of workers’ state, capable of responding to the needs of the majority in a far more democratic manner than any form of government.

But during a revolution this embryonic workers’ state can exist side by side with the old state – a hierarchical body designed to ensure the smooth functioning of capitalism.

The capitalist class may turn to moderate politicians to put a brake on the revolution and then, as it falters, use the army and police to drown it in blood.

Workers are very powerful. They produce every service and product used in society.

But our rulers are far better organised, and the state is their most important organisation, capable of drawing their forces together and focusing them against those who challenge their rule.

So workers need their own weapon for centralising their power and using it to destroy the capitalist state. Here the revolutionary party comes into its own.

It can provide the centralisation needed to break the old state and allow the new workers’ state to flourish.

To do this it must be well rooted in the working class and big enough to be capable of winning support within the new democratic institutions thrown up by the revolution.

Revolutionary parties can grow rapidly during a revolution, but to have an impact they have to be built in the long, non-revolutionary struggles that come before.

That’s something you can only do if you join.


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