The rules of revolutionary socialism

Submitted by AWL on 30 July, 2009 - 2:56 Author: Colin Foster

The AWL’s motto and guideline is what Leon Trotsky called “the rules” for revolutionary socialists: “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”.

We see other would-be revolutionary-socialist groups, like the SWP and the Socialist Party, as abandoning those rules in favour of what we call “Apparatus Marxism”. This means that they look at issues short-sightedly in terms of how they can use them to build their “apparatus” — their membership, their influence, their network of allies.

“Marxism” — the body of ideas and theories worked out over 160 years or more by Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and many others — serves them mainly as a storehouse of arguments and rationalisations which can be deployed to make whatever tactic they decide on seem to fit in with an overall strategy of socialist revolution.

We do not criticise the SWP and the SP for seeking to promote themselves and to recruit, as such. AWL seeks to recruit. We are not just a “think-tank” or behind-the-scenes assistant to working-class struggle. We are an up-front activist organisation. Like any such organisation, what we can do depends critically on how many members we can organise.

We criticise SWP and SP for seeking to recruit on a basis that can only lead to weak, floppy, jumbled politics.

The particular pools they choose to recruit from or seek influence in, and the consequent tactical judgements, differ from SWP to SP, but the basic method is the same.

In a way, then, we criticise the SWP and the Socialist Party for making the “party” (the organisation; although both SWP and SP call themselves parties, actually both are fairly small groups) into something autonomous from working-class development, into a value over and above the needs of class struggle.

Paradoxically, however, that “autonomy” — the idea, in the SWP and the SP, that the “party” can strike stances, manufacture campaigns, and so on, as best seems to “fit the mood” of the desired audience, without too much concern for how that relates to the basic class struggle — also leads the SWP and SP to be much less likely to take the sort of “autonomous” initiative that AWL members took in first going to the Isle of Wight to try to provide means for the Vestas workers to discuss collectively whether and how to resist the closures.

After all, in the Isle of Wight, at the start we had to reckon with a serious probability that our efforts would produce nothing. The workers would not respond, or not enough of them would. There was no pool of activists already in place from whom we could recruit to AWL (as you can sometimes recruit even on the basis of an effort which flops). The whole thing was a gamble on working-class organisation and struggle, with no guarantee of even limited success.

We were pushed towards the “gamble” by two ideas which we have discussed in recent years. First, that climate change is a central issue, and that it is vital to develop a specifically working-class strategy on it. (Thus our initiatives with “Workers’ Climate Action”). Second, that organising the unorganised is now a life-and-death matter for the labour movement, and can best be done helping workers organise themselves on their own issues rather than just by having the union leaders pay ever-larger numbers of professional organisers and make more and more speeches about “the organising agenda”.

The SWP and the SP prefer to go where they can find an audience ready-made, to create a “front” or other gambit to attract people, or to jump into a campaign and distinguish themselves by loose but good-sounding left-wing rhetoric.

The SWP and SP contribution to the Vestas campaign, since they arrived, has generally been positive. But even there you have examples of the typical approach.

Take, for example, the first leaflet put out by the SWP at Vestas. Referring to the court hearing on 29 July for Vestas to seek a “possession order” against the occupying workers, it called for “every bus worker, every council worker, every worker on the ferries [to] show up at that courtroom instead of going to work”.

In other words, a general strike on the Isle of Wight. The thought was softened by being introduced with the words: “Think of the impact if...”, as if the SWP were just saying “wouldn’t it be nice?”

Yes: but then why limit yourself to a call for the courtroom day? Why not call for the general strike immediately the occupation started, and to continue until the Government nationalises Vestas?

It seems, in fact, that all the SWP meant (and all most people read the leaflet as saying) was that workers should be encouraged to take sick days, or days of annual leave, or flexible breaks in their working day, to get to the courtroom, or come if they were off shift. The SWP made no move in any relevant union branch to defy the law by calling a one-day strike.

The trouble with loose talk like that is that it fills the space that should be taken by serious discussion about “facing reality squarely”, about what action is feasible, about what is the next step in the “logic of the class struggle” or the next “link in the chain”. It serves only to promote the SWP as “sounding left-wing” - not to help workers’ discussions about what we can really do, but rather to drown them out.

Unfortunately, it is not just a matter of one hastily-written leaflet. The approach is endemic in SWP politics. You also find it in SP politics — in the way that they are militant-sounding in unions where they are a safe minority, like the National Union of Teachers, but cautious in the union where they can actually decide what happens, the PCS.

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