By Mark L Thomas
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Organise to win – politics, leadership and the movement

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
The student protests and actions against corporate tax-dodgers have posed the question of how best to organise a movement against government cuts and fees. Mark L Thomas argues that coordinated activity and open political discussion are vital to the resistance.
Issue 355

One argument that has gained a new lease of life in the student revolt and the campaigns against corporate tax-dodgers is that the best way to organise resistance to the cuts is through loose, decentralised and “leaderless” networks that allow for the greatest spontaneous expression of activity.

Such ideas reflect the influence of “autonomist” ideas among many activists, even where they may be far from agreeing with every argument put forward by the autonomists. The turn to do it yourself mass direct action by large numbers of young people is an enormously healthy development. The upsurge of struggles from below has punctured the stifling atmosphere that cuts are, in George Osborne’s endless refrain, “unavoidable”.

The energy, anger and creativity of this new revolt stand in stark contrast to the dominant caution of the trade union leaders or to the equivocal attitude of Ed Miliband, who opposes some measures while accepting the necessity of austerity, albeit at a slower pace.

But there is a danger that at some point autonomist ideas could hold the movement back from developing into a force that can deal decisive blows to the government’s austerity drive.

Those who put forward such ideas argue that they offer an alternative to both the bureaucratic structures and the ideological hair-splitting of the existing left. Above all, runs the argument, the movement needs to stay “autonomous” from political parties, especially those that might attempt to give some political direction to the movement.


That such ideas are attractive is far from surprising given the stark failure of Labour in its 13 years in office, the inertia of the trade union leaders, the stench of parliamentary corruption and now the betrayals of the Liberal Democrats.

However, the sheer scale of the coalition government’s offensive against the welfare state and workers’ living standards will require a massive fightback if it is to be beaten off. Such a fightback will have to confront the ruling class’s willingness to use both the truncheons of the police and the hostile onslaught of the mass media to cow resistance.

Above all, the decisive question is whether the fightback can spread into the working class. Doing so will require thousands of activists with roots in the unions, organising and making the case for resistance. It also means dealing with the difficult problem of the continuing hold of the trade union bureaucracy over large numbers of workers who lack the confidence to fight back independently of the union leaders. The danger is that if the revolt doesn’t spread into the working class many people can turn back towards waiting for a Labour government in four years time – one which would also be firmly committed to serving the needs of British capitalism.

All of this means that the question of broadening the movement and political debates about the way forward are inevitable. But this runs counter to the influence of autonomist ideas that see the movement as a neutral space outside politics. Political argument is thus seen as divisive and an obstacle to building the fightback.

So, for example, in some university occupations there has been an aversion to taking decisions by voting. The argument is that agreement should instead be reached through consensus with everyone adhering to a mutual compromise, rather than a debate with different positions that are decided on by majority voting. At other times discussions are held that reach no binding conclusions, where everyone is free to “do their own thing” afterwards.

While reaching decisions by consensus can work sometimes, the outcome can actually be considerably less democratic than it initially appears and this can be a barrier to the further development of the movement. So the key in any occupation is that it is focused on action that allows it to connect with and draw in much wider numbers of students, shifting the political debate on campus and avoiding becoming isolated. The best way to achieve that is democratic decision making that focuses on getting things done. It also means that ideas that win a majority can be tested out in practice, seeing what works and what doesn’t and learning from it.

The need for consensus means that a minority, even a very small one, can prevent decisions that reflect the will of the majority even being taken, let alone implemented.

Big decisions

The reality is that decisions in any occupation, activist forum or campaign do need to be taken, sometimes urgently, for instance when to call the next demo or how to respond to a deadline for an eviction order. This means that there is a constant tendency for informal groupings to emerge – often reflecting those who are the most articulate, have the greatest stamina and time or the most resources – to bargain behind the scenes to ensure certain outcomes are reached.

Equally, the notion that a meeting, forum or occupation should be a structureless open space where no binding decisions are taken, in the belief that this avoids anyone “imposing” their views on anyone else and so encourages greater participation in the movement, is no solution. Discussions that lead to no binding conclusions are not democratic. There is no collective accountability for any of the forces or individuals involved. So such forms of organising are also vulnerable to co-option by more “structured” political groupings of like-minded individuals, whether they call themselves parties or not.

These problems are not new, despite the argument that the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter allows a completely fresh approach to organising. Such approaches to organising and the rejection of “ideology” have held a strong popularity in earlier movements. However, previous generations of activists have discovered their limitations through their own experiences.

The anti-capitalist movement that burst onto the global stage with the protests at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999 was heavily influenced by such methods of organising. The movement went through a period of vibrant expansion that peaked with the first European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 and fed, crucially, into the huge mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2003, but afterwards suffered a loss of momentum and gradual decline.

The impasse that the movement hit was fundamentally the gap between the aim it set itself – nothing less than to challenge the capitalist system – and its forces which, though sizeable, remained a militant minority of society. Without drawing in the mass of the working class, the force which possesses the power to deal real blows to the system, the movement was always likely to hit a barrier that it could not overcome.

Not only did the influence of autonomist methods of organising prove unable to overcome the gap between the movement and the mass of the population, but they increasingly became an obstacle in their own right. Consensus decision making or discussions without any binding decisions led to either informal groupings dominating or to increasingly ill-attended talking shops. The idea that the movement offered a neutral arena outside of politics increasingly conflicted with the need to develop a strategy that could offer a way forward.

A process of political differentiation took place as currents hardened around perspectives that looked to either a reformed and more state-regulated version of capitalism, the autonomist vision of creating liberated spaces within the system in the here and now, or the revolutionary perspective of the overthrow of the system. Effectively, different “parties” crystallised within the movement, though often only the radical left openly admitted to operating as such.

There were moves inside the anti-capitalist movement to place limits on the involvement of political parties. The founding charter of one of the key institutions, the World Social Forum, formally banned the participation of parties. But in reality this only strengthens reformism, which reflects, at least partially, the “common sense” of capitalist society that only limited change through the existing institutions of society is possible.

The experience of many radicals in the period before and after the great revolts of 1968 is also telling. Thousands of activists in the US and Western Europe moved away from the notions of participatory democracy and consensus models of organising, which had dominated the New Left in the period before 1968, and instead looked to the building of revolutionary parties. The popular view today among most academics and commentators (including many former activists) is that this was a terrible error. But at the time it reflected the experience that the fight against war, racism and inequality that had brought thousands of new activists onto the streets was proving to mean an extremely serious struggle with a very powerful enemy – the capitalist class and its state machine.


The tragedy was that too many of those who had rejected the project of building revolutionary parties before 1968 as irrevocably tainted with Stalinism then switched to accepting large parts of the Stalinist heritage (often by those who looked to Mao’s China for inspiration).

But the real Leninist tradition has nothing to do with Stalinism. Lenin’s approach has much to contribute to the fight to build the movement and ultimately to change the world. For many people this runs against the common sense view that the horrors of Stalinism were the inevitable outcome of Lenin’s efforts to create a centralised revolutionary party. So widely is this argument accepted that it is rarely seriously scrutinised. But it doesn’t stand up to the facts.

It was the totality of the historical circumstances that the Bolsheviks found themselves in that account for the rise of Stalin: the terrible backwardness of Russian society, where small pockets of sometimes very advanced industry were surrounded by an ocean of millions of peasants whose lives differed little from their medieval forebears. What was fatal was that this was combined with the failure of the one thing that could overcome this baleful legacy of poverty – successful revolutions in the more advanced capitalist states.

No matter that revolutions did in fact shake the whole of Europe – armies mutinied, mass strikes repeatedly broke out, workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils raised the red flag across central Europe, and the Ottoman, German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies were all swept away just as the Russian tsar was. No matter too that the explanation for the ultimate failure of these revolutions to replace capitalism rested largely on the loyalty of the existing mass workers’ organisations to the system and the chronic weaknesses in size and experience of the infant revolutionary parties that challenged them.

All these harsh truths can be brushed aside with the simple claim that Leninism led to Stalinism. The argument deserves much more space than is available here, but what’s important is to see that centralisation and leadership don’t have to mean stifling bureaucracy and a lack of democracy. On the contrary, understood – and more importantly practised – correctly they are essential preconditions of effective mobilisation and genuine democracy.

Centralisation arises from the need to coordinate activity and struggles. If you want to maximise the turnout for a protest against the English Defence League, or argue for a day of action against tax avoiders or for coordinated strike across a number of unions, a degree of common, centralised effort among activists is required – sometimes considerable effort.

When movements first burst onto the scene and connect with a widespread desire among large layers of people for a fightback, they can grow very rapidly. The very act of feeling part of collective resistance that throws the authorities onto the defensive creates a feeling of power that energises activists and draws in new forces.

Often it is enough simply to put up posters, send out a few emails or set up a Facebook page for large numbers of people to turn up. But at some point the movement meets challenges that must be overcome if it is to continue going forward when it becomes clear that the ruling class will not make concessions, that it will unleash repression or that the trade union leaders are not acting to build the movement but to dampen it.


The need for clear direction and leadership in the movement then becomes much greater. This means creating democratic forums that bring people together to debate and decide the way forward and that then have the democratic authority to initiate and coordinate the course of action agreed on. Inevitably this involves making strategic choices about where energy and resources are directed.

All of this means building an organisation based on putting forward revolutionary arguments inside any movement, campaign or strike that challenge the common sense ideas of capitalist society. This means an organisation, such as the Socialist Workers Party, based on the voluntary commitment of its members around the core ideas of revolutionary Marxism – that socialism is about the self-emancipation of the working class and that this involves smashing the capitalist state machine.

This common outlook and willingness to work together collectively implies stronger ties than the looser networks of the movement. It also means that a revolutionary party attempts to offer a lead in the struggles that take place. This means arguing openly for its strategy and perspectives for the way forward. But far from this being about imposing a political agenda from the outside, it is simply the recognition of reality.

Genuine differences of outlook exist within any university occupation, mass movement or strike. Even people who have rebelled against aspects of the system can, and often do, still accept some of the ideas of capitalist society. Someone who voted Lib Dem last May but now supports militant mass mobilisation and has experienced the brutal nature of the police can still reject the notion, for example, that workers have the power to change society. This can ultimately mean many activists will look to some version of reform within the system, rather than fighting for its overthrow.

Revolutionaries have to attempt to challenge those chunks of the ruling ideology that many people still accept. They have to help the process of people clarifying their ideas as they enter into struggle.

This doesn’t mean refusing to work with people who don’t accept all the arguments of revolutionaries. Such an approach would be disastrous, weakening resistance to the system and isolating revolutionaries. Instead it means revolutionaries engaging in debate and patient discussion, and working with people where there is common ground to prove in practice that the approach of revolutionaries is the most effective.

The loop between discussion, decisions and activity is more tightly bound inside a revolutionary party than in looser campaign networks, let alone the Labour Party (where the democratic decisions of the members, if they are allowed at all, are never binding on the parliamentary leadership). The result is both more effective and more democratic. The constant drive of a revolutionary organisation to intervene in the outside world produces new experiences as perspectives are tested and these then underpin the next round of discussion.

Such a party is not the germ of the future socialist society. Socialism will be the result of the activity of the mass of workers. The task of the party is neither to substitute itself for the class nor to create an island of socialism within the present system but to relentlessly focus on intervening in the class struggle – attempting to link each specific, sectional battle into a generalised fight against the whole system.

A revolutionary party stands or falls by whether it proves capable of organising a minority of the class in order to fight more effectively to win the majority to having the confidence to take power into their own hands. It is not a question of the party or the class, or the party or the movement. Both are indispensable.

The party must be part of the movement, seeking to strengthen that movement and help develop its ideas while at the same time learning from it – especially from a new generation not affected by years of retreat.

Existing revolutionaries and a new generation of activists have much to learn from each other. This process will be most effective if a significant layer of those activists join and then help build and lead a revolutionary party.

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