By Chris Harman
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Get This Party Started

This article is over 19 years, 8 months old
To ban parties from the movement would only benefit established parties.
Issue 269

One of the biggest and most enthusiastic meetings at last month’s European Social Forum in Florence was about ‘parties and movements’. Five thousand people crammed into a hangar-like hall 150 metres long for what was, in many ways, a rerun of a much older debate, that on ‘party and class’.

Such debate arises from the quite natural feeling people involved in any new mass movement have towards it being manipulated by tight-knit political organisations. Such fears have been enhanced by the long experience of such manipulation at the hands of social democratic and Stalinist parties. But that cannot be the end of the matter. Any genuine mass movement involves a wide array of people with very different views of what needs to be done. Each argues for the line of action they think correct. Someone is the first to suggest a demonstration or to walk out on strike. Someone else thinks the action was premature. A third person wants to put their faith in the powers that be and take no action at all. The movement appears spontaneous to outside observers. But, as the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci noted, viewed from the inside it involves attempts by myriad individuals to lead it in different directions.

What is more, as movements develop, those who share particular notions of the way forward are likely to coalesce into at least informal groupings pressing these ideas. So, historically, many great mass upsurges that have started ‘spontaneously’ soon come to be marked by a polarisation between rival currents: Girondins and Jacobins in the French Revolution; ‘physical force’ and ‘moral force’ in the Chartist movement; ‘social democrats’ and ‘Communists’ in the revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War; ‘Eurocommunists’, ‘Guevarists’, ‘Maoists’ and various sorts of Trotskyists in the movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. What effectively are ‘parties’ would come to exist, even if the divergences between people in the movement were simply random. But they never are. The divergences are structured by the pressure of existing society on the protests that arise within it.

All of us have been brought up in existing capitalist society, with its notions of what is and is not possible deeply ingrained in our consciousness. As Gramsci also noted, what people often call ‘common sense’ is the unquestioning acceptance of these notions. In struggle people begin to question some of these assumptions. But they rarely question them all instantaneously. Much more common is to question some but leave others intact, to believe they can fight part of the system but not the rest. Reformist politics–the belief you can improve the present system by using its own institutions–is the logical outcome of such ‘contradictory’ consciousness.

The movement that has mushroomed since Seattle cannot be an exception to this overall pattern. In it there are people with a gut revolutionary hatred of capitalism. But there are many others initially attracted to a whole host of competing schemes for reform–for ‘localisation’ of production, for opening Europe up to free trade in foodstuffs, for reform of the IMF, for replacing the IMF by the United Nations Commission on Development, for pressurising existing states to solve world poverty and stop crises through a ‘Tobin Tax’ on financial transactions, for alliances with some multinationals against others, for replacing neoliberalism with the state directed-pattern of capitalist development of 30 years ago.

Whether formally recognised or not, various informal, unorganised, reformist ‘parties’ have emerged within the movement. And, in the wings, various formal and highly organised reformist parties, with their powerful apparatuses and extensive networks of patronage, are going to try to take advantage of this. They will not be stopped from doing so by bans upon ‘parties’. Those enthused by new schemes for reform will inevitably try to put them into effect by seeking to influence existing political institutions. If you want the Tobin Tax, there is a logic in voting in the French presidential election for the left Gaullist Chevenement (as the leader of Attac, Bernard Cassen, did) or at least for the ‘plural left’ parties (as most other leaders did).

The parties that suffer most from any ban are those parties that struggle most strongly against the ‘common sense’ of capitalism and its reformist offspring–revolutionary parties. During the 1918 German Revolution ‘politicians’ were banned from the congress of workers’ councils. This kept out the leader of the left, Rosa Luxemburg. It did not keep out the influence of social democrat leaders who were working with the military to destroy the power of those councils.

Political parties will not be allowed open representation at next month’s World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. This will hardly worry the increasingly reformist leaders of Brazil’s Workers Party, since their influence will have an impact on the event, especially when the country’s newly elected president Lula speaks.

In English, the words ‘leadership’ and ‘domination’ are often confused. Genuine revolutionaries, who believe that existing society can only be replaced by the action of the mass of people themselves, are not interested in domination. We do not want to replace one lot of crap with another lot of crap. In any mass struggle, people show incredible initiative. They throw up new ways of organising themselves and of changing the world around them. But the muck of ages does not disappear at one magic stroke. So people look to old state institutions and old reformist politicians at the same time as beginning to create revolutionary alternatives. We seek to generalise the initiative to carry the struggle forward. But we cannot do so without freeing it from the muck still clinging to it–sexism, racism and kowtowing to authority.

That is precisely why we are interested in encouraging the movement to take a different direction to that suggested by the various reformist forces. We want to lead in the sense of winning people to move in one direction rather than another–and to do so in the rapid, disciplined way that is necessary to beat the ruling class and their centralised state.

We can only do this by arguing openly for our ideas–and insisting that those who believe in reformist schemes argue openly for theirs, without hiding behind ‘anti-party’ slogans. We do not want to dominate movements, preventing the interplay of different ideas within them. But we do want to be able to organise and put our side of the argument, so winning the new activists to an understanding of how to fight to win.

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