Document written for a conference of the Workers' Socialist League (a forerunner of AWL) in 1983. It has been abridged here to remove ephemeral references (and "WSL" has been replaced in the text by "AWL").
The working class is unique among all revolutionary classes in that it remains a class of wage slaves until, by seizing political power and the means of production, it makes the decisive stop towards emancipating itself.
Contrast the classic bourgeois experience. The bourgeoisie develops historically within feudalism and neo-feudalism as part of a division of labour within society which allows the bourgeoisie to own a segment of the moans of production, and itself to be an exploiter, long before it takes political power in society. It thus builds up wealth, culture, systems of ideas to express its interests and view of the world. It, so to speak, ripens organically, and the taking of power, the sloughing off of the old system — even if accompanied by violence — represents the natural maturing and growth of a class already in possession of important means of production and a share of the surplus.
The working class remains an exploited class — in more developed capitalist countries, the basic exploited class — up to the death knell of bourgeois social and political rule. It does not accumulate leisure, wealth or its own distinct culture. Its 'natural' condition is as a raw social category is to be dominated by the ideas of the ruling class.
Its own natural and spontaneous self—defence and bargaining within the capitalist system — trade unionism — binds it ideologically to the ruling class, to bargaining within the system and in times of crisis taking responsibility for it. Its natural tribunes and intellectuals are the trade union bureaucracy. On the face of it the proletariat might be doomed to go through history as a subordinate class.
Marx and Engels themselves wrote: 'The ruling ideology in every society is the ideology of the ruling class'.
In fact the working class becomes a revolutionary class, conscious of its own historic class interests and possibilities, in the following way, according to the views of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.
A set of social theories is created and developed on the basis of bourgeois social science (economics, philosophy, history) which uncovers the necessary logic of the historic evolution of capitalism towards the completion of its organic tendency to become more and more 'social' and monopolistic - by way of common ownership and the abolition of capitalism. The proletariat is located as the protagonist in this stage of history.
Marx analysed and uncovered the modes of economic exploitation of the proletariat within the formal (and seemingly fundamental and real) equality of capitalist exchange relationships. In short, a segment of the 'intellectuals' of the bourgeoisie come over to the proletarian wage slaves.
The proletariat itself evolves as a class through the stage of primitive elemental revolt at being driven into the capitalist industrial hell—holes to the stage of organising itself in combinations to get 'fair' wages, and then to the stage of bonding itself together for political objectives. It develops various political traditions.
In Britain the world's first mass working-class movement grouped around the demand for the franchise, which meant, in the conditions then, the right to take powers. In France a tradition of communist insurrection, involving sections of the proletariat, developed. It was rooted in the left wing of the great bourgeois revolution. A tradition, experience and theory of working class politics developed.
Marx and Engels put a 'floor' of a theory of the evolution of society (evolution including revolutions at turning points) under the once-utopian aspirations of the early working-class movements. These developments, in the course of the experience of the 1st, 2nd, and early 3rd Internationals, produced the following solution to the problem posed by the peculiarities of the proletariat as a class.
Instead of control of a portion of the means of production, the working class develops its own organisations. Within these organisations a struggle takes place between the ideas that represent the historic interests of the proletariat — Marxism — and the ideas of the bourgeoisie. This struggle occurs even where Marxists are the founders of the labour movement.
The working class is everywhere forced by its conditions under capitalism to struggle for the basics of life. This struggle tends to break down the power of the ideology of the ruling class. At its highest point, in times of tumult, it can escalate to mobilisations involving the class as a class, and to a spontaneous socialist consciousness capable of being linked through the work of a pre-organised and educated vanguard with a scientific strategy.
The revolutionary party is the protagonist in the work of struggling to emancipate the proletariat ideologically and to organise it for its own interests, as a 'class for itself'.
The revolutionary party has as its central task to achieve the political and organisational independence of the working class. It needs the organisational sinews of a body of socialists organised for combat — all the way from the struggle on a trade union level at the point of production through to organising an armed insurrection. But it is centrally, irreplaceably, and uniquely, the carrier of a system of ideas, a world outlook, a socialist programme, a method of analysing the world and society which serves the interests of the working class.
Only the conscious struggle of the living Marxists, reacting specifically and concretely, focusing and redefining Marxism, can make of Marxism a consistently revolutionary instrument for the working class, for separating out and maintaining scientific consciousness in the revolutionary working class.
If there is no irreplaceable function of this type for the Leninist party, then there is no need for our party. Were it not for the ideologicel task of the revolutionary party of the working class, were it not for the peculiar problems of the proletariat in that respect, then the working class could be expected to improvise the necessary organisation for the seizure of power, as the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie have done. If all the proletariat needs is an organisation, then the tightly knit revolutionary organisations are just sects, premature and almost certainly irrelevant.
If what the proletariat needs is a machine, then it does not need to have its militants labouring for decades in advance of the maturation of the situation where it requires an uprising.
The consequences of this are that our party is in the first place and irreplaceably a selection of politically conscious militants committed to activity in the struggles for the party’s goals. It must thus be selected on the basis of a minimum of political education and knowledge, and commitment.
If it is to be a party which is a living organ in the class struggle, then it must try to integrate itself in all the areas of the class struggle. If it is to be a party whose deliberations correspond to experience in the struggles of the working class, then it has to be a party of activists - of people with a minimum of commitment to the struggle. That commitment, under the direct control of the party, must be a condition of participation in the party's deliberations - that is, of full membership.
It has to be a party of the proletariat, but it is not identical to the proletariat: it must be capable of standing against the proletariat and of struggling within it when the mass of the working class is under the influence or domination of the ruling class. Its proletarian political character depends in the first place on its programme and its historical relation to the proletariat; a proletarian character in the crude sociological sense is not sufficient and in some epochs may not be possible.
The proletarian party without a mass working class membership organised at the point of production and deploying the power which the working class potentially has at the point of production, is impotent; proletarian militancy at the point of production devoid of the historical programme of working class socialism and perspectives for achieving it, is sterile and ultimately impotent.
The party is 'the vanguard of the class' — a selection of the most militant, educated, devoted persons in the working class, and among its sympathisers from other social strata. Within the party, a similar unevenness in education, experience, commitment to that which characterises the relationship between the party as a whole and the class, emerges between leading layers and the rest of the organisation.
Certain organisational structures flow from this: the party, when it chooses to, cuts itself off from the class, though ultimately it is subject to the class and can have no interests separate from it and can achieve none of its objectives without its activity. The National Committee and its subsidiaries within the party cut themselves off from the party where necessary to deliberate and discuss — though ultimately they must submit to the control of the party and can do nothing without it. There is a whole literature on these questions.
To favour a looser structure for the sake of being able to recruit workers is short sighted. Loose standards of discipline in a revolutionary organisation make it uninhabitable for workers.
A regime of hyper—activism and 'permanent emergency', in the Healyite style, is equally destructive. But the answer is a regime where discipline and reliability are demanded and ensured on the basis of education and rational political perspectives.
Where there is no adequate education, and no system of generally enforced and understood norms, discipline becomes an arbitrary and subjective matter. Effort is wasted, arrangements miscarry, meetings are chaotic, some comrades are overworked trying to cope with the mess, others are under-utilised. Inefficiency leads to more waste of effort through recriminations. Such a regime is uninhabitable for most workers.
To recruit we need contact work - that is, intensive discussion and education work with contacts to convince them. Starting from a perhaps limited area of agreement on practical work, or agreement with one of our positions, we have to work to convince contacts of what we are trying to de, and, on the basis of this, of the irreplaceabiiity of the AWL and the need for them to join it and take up the responsibility of one of its militants to build it.
Organisational chaos, lack of basic Marxist education, lack of education in or agreement on our policies and perspectives, prevent many of our comrades from being able to convince our contacts (and mean that many probably don't even try much — instead ’ticking over' in routine labour movement activity).
Yet this is a fundamental part of our work — in historical terms.
The devotion of the militant to the party is the product of a conviction that the party is irreplaceable. Sects achieve it by way of a paranoid counterposition of themselves to the rest of the world, and in particular the rest of the labour movement and the left. It is achieved in a serious organisation by way of the education of the militants in a revolutionary outlook and psychology, and a devotion to the organisation as the embodiment of this; instead of the sticky substances of sectarianism you get rational devotion.
This presupposes an educated cadre which collectively applies the standards of minimum activity, comradely relations in discussion, etc.
Antonio Gramsci pointed out that the Catholic Church does not maintain its ideological unity "by bringing the 'simple people' up to the level of the intellectuals (the Church does not even set itself this task...), but by an iron discipline over the intellectuals so that they do not pass beyond certain limits of differentiation...
“Marxism is antithetical to this Catholic position: Marxism does not seek to sustain the 'simple people' in their primitive philosophy Of common sense, but instead lead them to a higher view of life. If it asserts the need for contact between the intellectuals and the simple people it does so, not in order to limit scientific activity and maintain unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to build an intellectual-moral bloc which makes politically possible the intellectual progress of the masses and not only of a few groups of intellectuals...
"[This] means working to produce cadres of intellectuals of a new type who arise directly from the masses though remaining in contact with them and becoming 'the stay of the corset'..."
Thus Marxists aim to build a party in which the division between 'workers' and 'intellectua1s' is broken down by workers becoming 'intellectuals' and by 'inte1lectuals' from non—worker backgrounds being tied by party discipline to activity in the working class.