What are we for? For what overall defining purpose do revolutionary socialist organisations labour to raise funds, recruit members, publish and sell literature, organise meetings, and so on?
Socialist Alternative tried to answer these questions directly in an article in its July 2012 issue, "The case for a revolutionary socialist party", by Diane Fieldes. Fieldes is a longstanding activist who was until recently an academic at the University of New South Wales - not a new young member of Socialist Alternative, not yet educated but being encouraged to write by a light editorial hand.
The effort deserves close attention, since Socialist Alternative now claims to be the strongest revolutionary socialist group in Australia, and is surely the most visible. Socialist Alternative originated as a splinter from the International Socialist Organisation in 1995, and for a long time was much smaller than the ISO or the Democratic Socialist Party.
The ISO and the DSP have had troubles. The ISO went for an exaggerated "movement-ist" turn, in which many of its activists scattered into broader campaigns. Reconstituted under the name Solidarity in 2008, after some splits, it is still weak.
The DSP also went for a sort of "movement-ism", merging itself into an avowedly broad operation, the Socialist Alliance, which in its basic "about us" statement does not even mention the working class. It suffered a split by some longstanding leaders who formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
Socialist Alternative has grown, above all, by being the hardest-working group at the basics of making itself visible: organising public meetings, distributing posters and flyers for them, running stalls, selling its magazine. It deserves credit for that, and the rest of us can learn from it.
There is a debate to be had around the fact that Socialist Alternative, when accused by Solidarity of putting all its energy into that self-presentation activity, and little into working with others for broad campaigns, cited as the primary (not only) evidence to the contrary its heavy "involvement in the Same Sex Marriage campaign – easily the largest, ongoing campaign in Australia over the last few years".
We agree that socialists should support same-sex marriage equality. Whether they should make it their primary broad-campaign activity is another question.
Socialist Alternative's energy in postering, flyering, running stalls, and so on is good. Those activities help socialist groups grow and get more resources for their basic purposes. But what is the purpose? What does Socialist Alternative think it is all for?
Fieldes says that the "key reasons" for building a revolutionary socialist organisation are "two facts": "the unevenness and contradictions in workers' ideas, and the existence of competing ideas about what to do and how to win in any struggle".
This seems too general to be useful. If everybody, or all workers, had the same ideas, then there wouldn't even be anyone to pose the question of whether to organise a separate revolutionary socialist organisation, let alone an answer to the question. And the "two facts" are really just one fact: people have different and therefore competing ideas about things, including about how to pursue struggles.
After paragraphs noting that some people reject all parties because of experience of bad parties (Stalinist or reformist), Fieldes becomes more specific.
"Every struggle, no matter how small, brings those competing ideas into conflict. Should we go on strike and picket our workplace, or should we take a case to Fair Work Australia to get a wage rise? Should we rely on the election of the ALP to end WorkChoices or should we build mass strikes against the law? Is a mobilisation in the squares enough to bring down Mubarak or do we need strikes against the regime, and so on".
This paragraph is a rewrite, and in part a direct copy, from a previous Socialist Alternative article ("Why we need a revolutionary party", October 2011), so can be considered pivotal and well-considered.
One set of competing ideas, Fieldes continues, is promoted in an organised way by ALP and union leaders, namely, "ideas of change from above... looking to parliament... trying to capture union positions, doing bureaucratic deals or influencing 'important' people".
She assumes, no doubt fairly, that her readers will see those ideas as inadequate. Therefore, counter-organisation is needed, by those who will favour striking and picketing, or, more generally, "change by the mass of workers and the oppressed standing up and fighting back" or "mass mobilisation from below".
"A revolutionary party needs to unite the most radical", she concludes. "Most radical" here is implicitly defined as those who favour the widest and most militant action.
Far from indicating a rational long-term defining purpose for the work of building revolutionary socialist organisations - which has gone on through ups and downs for about 200 years now, and may have to go on for many decades longer - Fieldes' formula offers only a snapshot of Socialist Alternative's picture of itself as it operates in Australia now.
It goes to struggles, and in each one it becomes the organised force arguing against the ALP and the union leaders for more militant tactics.
We can set aside the fact that Fieldes assumes as fixed for all time what may be mostly true in Australia now - that ultra-leftism, or impatience by inexperienced groups of workers suddenly roused into battle, are non-existent problems. In most struggles there is an argument between do-nothing bureaucrats and a go-for-it militant minority.
But Fieldes' snapshot cannot be an adequate statement of the long-term defining purpose of revolutionary socialist organisations. It says nothing about the aims of the struggles in question, but only about better or worse tactics towards those aims!
Of course revolutionary socialists generally argue for more militant tactics. Whether we can really change the course of history that way, rather than helping individual struggles here and there, is another question.
If we see strike figures rising in Australia, we reckon that the reason is to do with elemental movements in the working class, rather than Socialist Alternative, or Workers' Liberty, or other left groups, having put on extra effort. When the Russian workers rose with huge militancy in 1905 and 1917, or the German workers in 1918-9, that was cause rather than product of the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists working harder.
In conditions where a revolutionary socialist organisation is stronger than the reformist organisations, and where workers generally and instinctively go for strikes rather than wait-and-see once a battle is underway - that is, where a revolutionary organisation could really come into its own - Fieldes' snapshot formula would give the revolutionary organisation almost nothing to do.
In history, the effectiveness of revolutionary socialist organisations has been in refining the aims and strategy of working-class struggle, rather than mainly in increasing the militancy of tactics. Between the early 1880s and about 1900 small socialist groups in England, the SDF and others, managed to transform a situation where socialism had been a marginal creed of old Owenites and Chartists into one where maybe most active and militant workers saw themselves as socialists. They were much helped by the militancy of struggles in the rise of New Unionism, and their activity in those struggles, but they did not cause the militancy of those struggles.
As Rosa Luxemburg defined the reason-for-existence of revolutionary socialist organisation in 1918: "The Spartacus League is only the most conscious, purposeful part of the proletariat, which points the entire broad mass of the working class toward its historical tasks at every step, which represents in each particular stage of the Revolution the ultimate socialist goal, and in all national questions the interests of the proletarian world revolution".
It is odd to hear from Socialist Alternative a recycling of Eduard Bernstein's dictum: "To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything". But that is what we have here. The aim goes without saying, or flows uncontentiously from the tactics. The choice of tactics, more or less militant, is everything.
In Australia, as often in Europe, workers who are more militant frequently also aim for socialism, or at least for some definition of socialism. But the connection is not automatic between militant tactics and even loosely-defined socialist aims, let alone between militant tactics and socialist aims defined clearly enough to guide a workers' government. The US workers' movement, for example, has had and has many activists who are strongly for militant tactics yet not socialists.
Of course Socialist Alternative has a defined aim. It is set out, albeit sloppily, in a "What We Stand For" in every issue of the magazine: "a world in which the workers who create all the wealth democratically decide what and how much our society needs, rather than decisions being determined by the pursuit of profit".
Fieldes' article, however, shows that in Socialist Alternative's own picture of its own day-to-day activity is connected to that aim only via the apparent assumption that more militancy about tactics will lead to seeing a democratic worker-controlled economy as the general aim, and the general thought that making the organisation bigger helps. Look after the militancy, and the aims will look after themselves?
Fieldes' pivotal paragraph evades the question of the aims of struggle in three ways.
First, it assumes that the only struggles which come around are those which socialists should support, or that there is no difficulty about seeing which struggles to support and which not to support.
But campaigns against abortion rights, against a carbon tax, for "local workers first", or "to boycott Israel", may be sizeable, and even involve many workers, yet be unsuitable to support. Socialists cannot just jump into struggles, ignore the question of aims, and busy themselves only with arguing for more militant tactics.
Second, when it deals with struggles which socialists should support, it downplays the arguments which exist within those struggles about exactly what their aims should be.
To take Fieldes' examples: if it's a struggle for a wage rise, should the claim be for an equal wage rise for all, or for higher wages for workers already in post and lower wages for new hires? Should workers trade conditions for wage rises, or should they regard hours and conditions as fundamental?
When we're campaigning against WorkChoices, is our aim to return to the status quo before WorkChoices, or should we (as Workers' Liberty argued in that campaign) fight for a positive charter of workers' rights to organise, to bargain, and to strike?
In a mobilisation against Mubarak, are we content with the old dictator being replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood leader? Or do we demand a democratic secular state, institutionalising wide workers' rights, as the essential first step to enable wide working-class organisation and a move towards socialist revolution?
Third, what is our overall defining purpose in the struggles? Is it to win a range of concessions which, bit by bit, will improve society? Or, while we value partial improvements, is the essence each struggle's contribution to the organisation, awareness, and confidence of the working class, which alone can win the victory - the socialist revolution - which is more than a temporary forcing-back of the slavering jaws of capitalism?
Fieldes refers to "the ultimate goal of socialist revolution", but in the decisive passages of her article she has sketched a defining role for the revolutionary party only in partial struggles (wages, WorkChoices, Mubarak: arguing for more militant tactics).
She declares that the revolutionary party should be "hostile to... capitalism", but she gives no argument as to why a party defined as "uniting the most radical" on the questions of tactics will be that.
She says the party must "bring together those who want the movement to grow numerically, and ultimately [only ultimately?] to reach out to the social force - the working class - that has the power to actually challenge the rich and powerful".
It is not in the least clear from the context what "movement" is meant here, except that it is evidently something so distinct from the working class that only "ultimately" can it hope to reach out to the working class.
That sentence is one of only three clear references to the working class in the article. Though the article often, in passing, refers to the people involved in struggle as "workers", and sometimes to "class struggle", its general scheme is one of "struggles", "rebellions", "movements", without further definition, and of revolutionaries defined as the advocates of more militant tactics in those "struggles", "rebellions", and "movements".
Fieldes writes the revolutionary organisation's "papers and magazines" must "argue for the interests of the working class". The buried question of "aims" - or, how do we decide which objectives and demand serve the interests of the working class? - erupts and demands attention. Actually, however, the argument up to that point indicates only that the "papers and magazines" should argue more militant tactics in variegated struggles.
A bit further on, Fieldes says that the party must "see these day to day struggles as part of the process of strengthening working-class organisation". Why? How?
The defining passage here is the one where the working class is invoked as a force which, because of its power, "ultimately" has to be brought into things. The suggestion is that arguing more militant tactics for "the movement" will eventually coincide with the desired "reaching out to the working class", presumably because the working class has the power to organise larger actions (strikes as distinct from occupations of city squares, for example).
Despite the word "class-conscious" being used a couple of times in the article, the scheme here is of the working class as the "brawn" which has to be called on by the "brain" of the movement. The working class is the revolutionary class because it has brute force (economic power), not because it can be organically impelled by the logic of its class struggles to socialist conclusions, given the activity of revolutionary socialists to draw out, explain, and educate in that logic.
For the Marxist, wrote Plekhanov, "the revolution is of 'particular importance' for the workers, while in the opinion of the [populist] the workers, as we know, are of particular importance for the revolution". Socialist Alternative, despite its wish to be Marxist, is on the same lines as the populists here.
The Socialist Alternative article is not just a sloppy one, failing to spell out some essential steps in the argument because the writer takes them for granted. It is also a faithful mirror of the "party-building" approach of Socialist Alternative and of the whole school of which it is part, around the SWP in Britain.
The socialist revolution is invoked but seen only as the culmination of strikes and similar struggles when they reach a height of militancy. The job of the revolutionary party in the revolutionary situation is to be strong enough and, as ever, to argue for more militancy. Clear definition of aims is not seen as a problem.
In the day-to-day, the revolutionary organisation can decide which struggles to advocate, and which demands to make for more militancy in those struggles, by whether they "fit the mood" (as the SWP says). Whether what the organisation advocates is right, or tallies with the long-term aims of socialism and the working class, is secondary to whether it "positions" the organisation well to attract militant-minded people.
It is a formula which can "work" for a while. It has "worked" for Socialist Alternative to increase its profile beyond those of the ISO/ Solidarity and DSP/ Socialist Alliance.
It compares badly with what Luxemburg can teach us - as above - and what Marx, Lenin, and others can teach us.
In the Communist Manifesto Marx defined the purposes of the Communist League as follows:
"1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
"The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement...
"The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement".
The idea of being "the most advanced and resolute" in immediate struggles is there, but the emphasis is on understanding and explaining long-term interests and historical aims, not on advocating more militant tactics. The same in later texts.
George Plekhanov, in 1891, summarised Marx's argument in a way that educated Russian Marxists for decades after: "the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists", he said, is "the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat".
When Lenin wrote a draft programme for Russian Marxists in 1895, he defined the aim as "to assist this struggle of the Russian working class by developing the class-consciousness of the workers, by promoting their organisation, and by indicating the aims and objects of the struggle".
The Russian Marxists eventually adopted a programme in 1903. It defined the purpose of their movement as to "organise the proletariat into an independent political party, opposed to all the bourgeois parties, guide all the manifestations of its class struggle, expose before it the irreconcilable contradiction of interests between exploiters and exploited, and explain to it the historical significance of, and the necessary pre-conditions for, the impending social revolution".
After the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky argued that the old definitions of the role of the Marxist party had over-stressed the organic evolution of class-consciousness from struggle, and not sufficiently taken into account the sharpnesses of ideological battle and the need for a capacity for sharp turns and initiative in a revolutionary crisis.
"The proletarian revolution is precisely distinguished by the fact that the proletariat – in the person of its vanguard – acts in it not only as the main offensive force but also as the guiding force. The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat... In a revolutionary party the vitally necessary dose of conservatism must be combined with a complete freedom from routine, with initiative in orientation and daring in action".
When he summed up the Fourth International's tasks, he kept that argument in mind: "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one's program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives..."
And that is why Workers' Liberty Australia, in our constitution, see ourselves as having a different purpose from Socialist Alternative: "to spread ideas of unfalsified socialism, to educate ourselves in socialist theory and history, to assist every battle for working-class self-liberation, and to organise socialists into a decisive force, able to revolutionise the labour movement so that it, in turn, can revolutionise society".