Does the labour movement need a Marxist educationalist group like the AWL?

An examination of the role of a Marxist “Fighting Educationalist Group” in the class struggle and in the transformation of existing labour movements.

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“It is necessary to find the particular link in the chain which must be grasped with all one’s strength in order to keep the whole chain in place and prepare to move on resolutely to the next link.”

V I Lenin

What is the role of Marxists such as the supporters of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty in the labour movement? Is it only to develop the influence of Marxism by making propaganda in the existing broad labour movement, essentially now, the trade unions? Or is it to build a revolutionary organisation — an organisation integrated in the broader labour movement, but nevertheless also a distinct entity already having some of the essential structures and activities of a fully fledged independent revolutionary party? If the answer is — “both”, how do they fit together? The view that making propaganda is sufficient is more often expressed in the routine labour movement practice of ex-revolutionaries than in coherent argument, yet it is a very important current of thought in the labour movement: it is the “position” of vast numbers of ex-WRP and ex-SWP members who turn the sectarian fetish of “building the party” inside out. Who opt for a politically passive ‘citizenship’ in the existing labour movement.

This is an important question. On the broad political level, the counterposition of “developing the influence of Marxism” in the existing movement to “party-building” — the creation of a Marxist movement that is politically independent of the existing mass working class movement and, organisationally, has concerns, rhythms and short term concerns “of its own” — goes to the heart of left-wing politics now, and of the difference between Solidarity/Workers’ Liberty and the many “independent Marxists” — in the Socialist Alliance, for example — who have not properly assessed their experience in organisations like the SWP, or some other pseudo-Leninist grouping, and who think they can dispense with building a Marxist organisation and nevertheless be “practising” Marxists in the labour movement. The point is that you can’t meaningfully develop the “influence of Marxism” as a revolutionary force without building a “revolutionary party.”

Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty’s notion of revolutionary activity and organisation is rooted in the basic Marxist proposition that the class struggle takes place on three fronts, not one: the economic, the political, and the ideological. We work towards integrating the three fronts into a coherent strategy of class war and, ultimately, the struggle for working-class state power.

Certainly, the struggle for socialist ideas against bourgeois ideas, that is, the struggle on the “ideological front”, conditions the other two; this struggle for ideas and programme is the unique and irreplaceable role of the revolutionary group or party. Yes. But if a group only conducts “ideological battle”, and organises itself as a group only to fight on that front, inside the existing labour movement, then it is no revolutionary organisation. Moreover, it will not be effective even on that front in spreading Marxist ideas.

The purpose of socialist organisation cannot possibly be defined as just diffusing “the influence of Marxism” and Marxist politics within the structures of an existing, reform-minded mass movement now, pretending that the structures of either the old Labour Party or the trade unions can substitute for the specific structures required for all-round Marxist activity on the three fronts of the class struggle.

Those who counterpose “ideologically rearming the workers’ movement” to “‘building the party’” beg the question: what exactly do you think such general ideas as “rearming the labour movement” with socialist and Marxist ideas mean if not the creation over time of a powerful revolutionary party at the head of the broader labour movement, in the first place, of the trade unions? To counterpose “politically rearming the labour movement” to “building the party” is not to know the arse from the elbow of what serious socialist activity in the labour movement is. At the end of the day, both formulas mean one and the same thing. At the end of the process, both formulas will have matched up and merged into one: a mass revolutionary party at the head of the broader labour movement.

Beyond those generalisations, it is a matter of working out concretely at a given moment which is best of the possible ways the organised collective of Marxists, be they more or less numerous, can relate to an existing mass reformist labour movement so as to bring about its transformation, or the next step in its transformation. The growth of the Marxist organisation is both a measure of how the process of transformation is proceeding and progressing, and a necessary instrument for further transformation.

More: the Marxists must organise themselves so as to fight the class struggle on all fronts now, despite the dominance of the trade union bureaucrats. Or does someone think we can transform the labour movement apart from the class struggle? Or that Marxists must wait until the movement is transformed before immersing themselves in immediate class struggle? Or that an organised collective of Marxists able to act coherently as a combat organisation is useless in the class struggle here and now? Nobody could be that stupid!

Developments in the Labour Party, and the consolidation of Blairism there for example, have greatly depended on affairs in industry. Think of recent labour movement history.
In 1984-5, the miners’ strike could have been won by solidarity from dockers and other key workers, even though the TUC leaders sold it out. A network of rank-and-file activists in key positions across industry, even if only a few thousand strong, might have won solidarity for the miners — that is, made the difference between victory and defeat. If the miners had won, things would have gone very differently in the Labour Party… Blairism, if it had appeared at all, would have been crushed before it became a powerful force.

In future struggles a rank and file network of the revolutionary minority in industry may make the difference between victory and defeat in big struggles, and thus affect the whole mood and potential of the political movement. Who will build that rank-and-file movement if not the Marxists organised as a distinct, militant, “tightly knit” minority?
The organised revolutionary minority pursues all sorts of tactics, in part dependant on its own size and possibilities, in working towards reorganising the existing mass labour movement. But the sine qua non of being able to work out any tactics, and then put them into practice, is the existence of a revolutionary organisation. Without that we can only babble.

This is the answer to those who conclude from a bad experience with, for example, the SWP that everything a small Marxist organisation does, beyond what a group of vaguely propagandising supporters of a socialist paper might do, is futile and sectarian and, therefore, that instead of “building the party”, we should just be a laid back, lazy group, desultorily promoting “the ideological rearmament of the labour movement”. Revolutionary socialists must indeed be in the labour movement on pain of sterility. They must also on pain of a different sort of sterility be autonomous — retaining the will and the ability to promote workers’ and young people’s struggles which take place outside of, and outside the tempo of, the existing labour movement.

A “Marxist” group, not to speak of solo Marxist individuals, content to jog along within the tempo of the reformist labour movement, telling itself that it is promoting “ideological rearmament”, and “the influence of Marxism” would at best develop only a vague, unstructured and diffuse influence for a blunted, abstract “Marxism”. A “Marxism” lacking embodiment in a militant organisation which strives for leadership in economic and political struggles would be like the clock with neither battery nor spring: a poor joke.
It seems to us that the tasks of socialists now are, by way of Marxist propaganda and agitation:

• to educate, multiply and group together the Marxists;
• to bind them together in a coherent organisation, capable of both collective political thought and united action; and capable of knitting together the political and industrial fronts of the class struggle with a coherent battle on the “ideological” front for a consistently proletarian world outlook;
• to organise Marxist fractions in the trade unions and Labour Parties, and among unorganised groups of workers, youth, etc.;
• to work towards building a rank and file movement in the trade unions;
• to organise a class-struggle left in the Labour Party and trade unions;
• to promote the class struggle day to day;
• to work steadily towards the subversion of the structures and institutions of the existing labour movement, and towards the movement’s reorganisation — augmented from the very large layers of workers presently unorganised — into a new movement, led by and grouped around a revolutionary Marxist programme and party.

The Marxist organisation needed to do those things has to be built now. They simply cannot happen without the continual interaction of the Marxist organisation with the class struggle and mass movement. If that interaction happens fruitfully then the Marxist organisation will grow — before the full transformation of the labour movement — by ones and two, then dozens and hundreds, and then by thousands and tens of thousands. It is a key index of the maturation of the British labour movement and a prerequisite for its successful transformation. Ever watched water boil? All the bubbles don’t cascade at once.

Serious socialists do not, like the sectarians, try to “build the party” irrespective of and wilfully apart from the labour movement and the working class, but, equally, we do not sink the revolutionary group into the rhythms and norms of a labour movement which is not revolutionary and which involves only a minority of the working class. That is as much a recipe for suicide as the antics of the sectarians — by an overdose of sleeping pills rather than an excess of ‘acid’, or some other sectarian hallucinogenic.

To deny that a militant Marxist organisation — and not just some Fabian-Marxist “think-tank” — must be built continuously, in the ongoing class struggles and inside the very process of transforming the labour movement, is either to think that the transformation will happen ‘of itself’, spontaneously and mechanically, or else to believe that someone or something else will bring about and consolidate the transformation of the labour movement. Who, if not us, the Marxists, might they be? Marxists who deny this do not, when you come down to it, have much use for their own “Marxism”.

Can that transformation happen spontaneously, as a result of economic class struggle? It will not. Unless the Marxists are strong enough to shape events you will probably get fiascos and muddle and confusion like that experienced by the Bennite left of the 1980s.
The idea that revolutionary socialists relate to the Labour Party and trade unions like a farmer waiting for his crops to grow implies not only a vulgar-evolutionist ripening of the Labour Party, but fond belief in a stable, peaceful never-to-be-disrupted development for capitalism, too. And this old “Militant” [Now the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal.] idea that the Labour Party was organically ripening towards full Marxism, looks not too convincing today in the era of Blair: Lenin-weaned Marxists however know that as well as evolution there is devolution.

Serious socialists fight for the hegemony of Marxism in the labour movement, and to do that we must build, as slowly as necessary and as quickly as possible, a coherent three-front class-struggle Marxist organisation. If socialists don’t build up now by way of the ones and twos and threes that can be won, we will never be big enough to win over the tens, hundreds, thousands and millions.

Spain in the 1930s illustrates the foolishness of counterposing the building of a revolutionary organisation now — even if it is no more than the rough draft of the mass party of the future — to reorganising the labour movement. There was a strong labour movement in Spain. Much of it was anarchist. The second most important current was reformism. How might the mass revolutionary party have emerged out of that labour movement? For sure not by the small group of Trotskyists burying themselves in the mass movement, eschewing autonomy and party initiatives, and waiting for History to do its work. Trotsky rightly criticised the quasi-Trotskyist POUM for political woolliness and lack of vigorous intervention directed towards the mass anarchist movement.

The tactical choices of the Marxists at crucial turning points were decisive. For example, in 1934 the Socialist Party youth — the youth of the reformist movement, whose leader, Largo Caballero, had been a state councillor of the recent dictator Primo de Rivera — came out for a Fourth International. The Trotskyists were too stiff and proud to do the entry work Trotsky advocated. The Stalinists got in there and hegemonised the youth, thus marginalising the Trotskyists.

And a few years later, in large part because of the strength of the Stalinist Party, fascist catastrophe engulfed the whole Spanish labour movement before it could be reorganised. We are not, in Britain or in Spain, guaranteed a happy ending to these affairs! Defeat, defeat for a whole long historical period, is possible. We are today still living out the consequences of the defeats of the working class in the 1920s and ‘30s and in the '70s'and '80s.

The lesson of history is that even an initially small but competent and combative revolutionary Marxist party can be decisive; that it can make the difference in the heat of mass struggles between the labour movement being able to reorganise itself and win, and crushing defeat.

That is the truth taught to us positively by the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917 — and negatively by the tragedy of the Spanish working class in the 1930s. In Spain if they had been sharper and harder, more “sectarian” in the sense of politically intransigent and less sectarian in the sense of being passive and inert, then the small Trotskyist group of the early 1930s, out of which emerged both the centrist POUM and the Bolshevik-Leninists, might have secured the victory of the proletarian revolution.

That is why revolutionary politics is not something for the future — “on the barricades”, as the old middle class cliché has it — but for here and now. There is an organic relationship — seed to luxuriant growth — between selling papers and magazines on a street corner now and victory or defeat in mass revolutionary struggles in the future.

If we do not build now, even when the mass political labour movement is in the doldrums, then we will not be able to seize chances when they come, as they will certainly come. We may not be able to avoid catastrophe.

What was wrong with the old WRP Healyites and what is wrong with the SWP now, is that they do not understand how the work of building the revolutionary party — which is the epochal task of those who accept the programme and tradition of Lenin and Trotsky — must be related to the already-existing mass labour movements. Where their mirror-image “Marxists” sink — often without trace — completely into the existing labour movement, the sectarians conceive of “building the party” as a process more or less fully autonomous from the existing movement and even, sometimes, from the working class.

The idea that we can be fully autonomous is absurd. Yet some autonomy of the Marxists is essential. You cannot do what we need to do and aim to persuade millions of workers to do by way of the existing structures of the British labour movement alone! Even if we led the labour movement, all the time we would strive to develop the existing structures and go beyond them. Would we not promote workers’ councils during revolutionary struggles? What are workers’ councils and soviets to Marxist theory except recognition that even the strongest labour movement under capitalism, even with the greatest “influence of Marxism”, is limited and inadequate to the tasks of working class revolution?

Therefore, while socialists work in the labour movement structures and promote our politics, projects and perspectives within them, we do not voluntarily confine ourselves to them or depend on them. If we had enough people we would do things criminally neglected by the labour movement now, like organising young people. We would turn those young people towards the labour movement, but we would not give a damn for the “legality” of that movement if we could ignore it with impunity and still do our work with them.

We do not go quiet when the official structures go quiet. If some parts of the labour movement die — and that is what the Labour Party as a workers’ party faces if the Blairites succeed — we will not die. We will work to build — better! — replacements.
Serious socialists have to reject both SWPish sectarianism towards the existing labour movement, and also the attitude of those “Marxists” who would become mere passengers, enunciating an occasional message to their fellow-passengers. Passengers are not builders of new tracks and better engines! The sectarians are sterile and impotent because they stand aside; the others are sterile because they cling self-distortingly to the existing structures and become parasitically dependent on them, incapable of independent initiative. They fail to develop the sinews and muscles of an independent organisation in relation to the class, the class struggle, and the existing reformist labour movement. They fail to be what socialists must be: the representatives of the movement’s future, active in the here and now to carve out that future. James Connolly said it well: “The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce”.
We repeat: the point is that, ultimately, both come to the same thing in relation to the existing labour movement. Both remove or minimise the creative activity of Marxists as an organised force in the future evolution of the mass labour movement.

If the above points are agreed, then we can agree that the Workers’ Party USA of the ‘40s, rejecting JP Cannon’s idea of a semi-monolithic party, presents us with one of the best models of how the Marxists should organise — the way in fact that Lenin’s party organised.

Of course, the majority at a given moment has to set the politics and the organisational goals of the organisation, and democratically elected officials have to be given authority to direct work day-to-day. Within that framework, without which the organisation would be nothing but a talking shop, there has to be full democratic freedom of opinion and freedom to express that opinion.

The November 1995 Workers’ Liberty conference wrote into our constitution the long existing right of people with dissenting views to publish these views in our press.

The alternatives are the SWP’s replica of an autocratic cult or the loosely structured regime in, say, Briefing, which is the private property of a small clique, organised for nothing more onerous or ambitious than publishing a few timid little “left consensus” articles without tang, substance or consequence.

What does Hal Draper's Marxist “micro-sect” do in the labour movement?

From Workers’ Liberty 33, July 1996, with some amending and updating.