Decisions of AWL conference 16-17 October 2010 on a weekly paper, and on building the AWL.
A weekly paper
1. AWL is not now properly tooled-up to meet the new political situation which we are in. We have over a long period gone through a process of slow "managed decline" and progressive enfeeblement. This is shown in such things as the circulation of our press and our ability to raise money for political purposes. It must and can now be reversed. It is the duty of every member of AWL, and of AWL as a whole, to reverse it, and turn the coming period into one of advance, growth and re-Leninisation for the AWL.
2. To "intervene" adequately in the new and developing situation, we need a weekly paper urgently geared to the labour movement and working-class resistance to the cuts.
3. It is an essential part of Leninism that we start, in everything and always, with what is objectively necessary for the working class and for the work of the Marxists who serve it and try to help it develop. A weekly Solidarity is well within our capacity. We can find the resources.
4. A paper is also an organiser and coordinator of those who produce and circulate it. A weekly Solidarity will, by increasing the tempo of AWL work in line with the new political situation, help enormously in the necessary and now very urgent renewal of AWL.
5. Therefore we resolve now to start making the practical preparations for bringing out Solidarity weekly.
Building the AWL
SOCIALISTS AND THE WORKING CLASS
The pivotal role in socialist activity of clarifying ideas, educating, and explaining is expounded in a classic pamphlet by George Plekhanov.
"[Marxian] Socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.
The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful...
In identifying the most important and the most direct sign of socialist activity, I do not wish to say that anyone who does not want to betray the Red Flag should unfailingly engage either in writing socialist books or in distributing them and generally in propaganda among the proletariat and its organisations.
Individuals, belonging to the socialist party, may be involved in [technical and administrative work, for example] without ceasing to be Socialists for a single moment... In engaging in this activity, not only did we remain members of the party that directly promotes the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat but we also undertook this activity on its instructions...
Without workers who are conscious of their class interests there can be no socialism...
If I assert that the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat is the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists, then this does not mean that the contemporary Socialists stand for propaganda, for propaganda alone, and for nothing but propaganda...
In general it is not easy to draw the line between agitation and what is usually called propaganda.
Agitation is also propaganda, but propaganda that takes place in particular circumstances, that is in circumstances in which even those who would not normally pay any attention are forced to listen to the propagandist's words. Propaganda is agitation that is conducted in the normal everyday course of the life of a particular country.
Agitation is propaganda occasioned by events that are not entirely ordinary and that provoke a certain upsurge in the public mood. Socialists would be very bad politicians if they were not to use such notable events for their own ends...
Propaganda, in the strict sense of the word, would lose all historical significance if it were not accompanied by agitation.
Propaganda conveys the correct views to dozens, hundreds, thousands of people. But people holding the correct views only become historical activists when they exert a direct influence on public life...
If I had to clarify further the relationship between agitation and propaganda I should add that the propagandist conveys many ideas to a single person or to a few people, whereas the agitator conveys only one or a few ideas, but he conveys them to a whole mass of people, sometimes to almost the entire population of a particular locality.
But history is made by the mass. Consequently agitation is the aim of propaganda: I conduct propaganda so that I shall have the opportunity to transfer to agitation".
But the foundation, the first step, is propaganda; and fruitful propaganda is possible only if it is based on sound theory and sound assessments.
This approach is directly opposite to one common on the would-be left today, in which the desire to be "agitational" becomes the primary defining principle.
The desire to find slogans which "fit the mood" becomes primary, and propaganda and theory are constructed "backwards" from the desire to rationalise and justify the agitation.
Revolutionary socialist organisations pass through different stages of development on their road to becoming mass parties. The AWL now, and for the foreseeable future, is a "fighting propaganda group": an organisation whose chief concern is propaganda, but which conducts its propaganda while always immersing itself in and responding to the class struggle, and while always seizing every real opening for genuine agitation.
Engels once commented, in a letter, that Marx and he had "fought harder all [their] life long against the alleged Socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois)". Marx explained the entire structure of his "Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" by telling Engels that in that book "the Proudhonist socialism now fashionable in France... is demolished to its very foundations... Communism must above all rid itself of this 'false brother'."
We do not imagine that we have the same intellectual power as Marx or Engels. But - basing ourselves on their work, and that of many others who have developed Marxist and Trotskyist traditions between their time and ours - we have somewhat the same task in relation to the "alleged socialists" of our time.
This task of polemical clarification is imposed on us by the decay of much of the would-be left under pressure of the working-class setbacks of recent decades, its sordid attempts to curry favour by latching on to reactionary trends like political Islam or anti-EUism, and its deep corruption by carried-over infection from Stalinism.
THE REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALIST ORGANISATION
1. The uniqueness of working-class revolution
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, that is, to bargaining within the system and in times of crisis taking responsibility for it. Its natural tribunes and organic 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'.
2. Marxism and the working 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, i.e. of the relationship in which the worker, the seller of labour-power, is formally the equal of the buyer of her or his labour-power. 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 power in society. 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 the 'floor' of a theory of the evolution of society under the once-utopian aspirations of the early working-class movements. (Evolution, as distinct from vulgar evolutionism, here of course includes revolutions at turning points.
These developments, in the course of the experience of the 1st, 2nd, and early 3rd working-class socialist 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 rooted in a Marxist understanding of the laws of bourgeois society.
That segment of the working class which is organised in the revolutionary party is the protagonist in the work of struggling to emancipate the rest of the proletariat ideologically and to organise it for its own interests, as a 'class for itself'.
In no circumstances can "the revolutionary party" substitute itself for the proletariat. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.
3. The struggle to prepare
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.
Its core activity and responsibility in history is as an educator of the working class, educating workers about the nature of capitalist society and about what the working class can and must do in history.
The cry "build the revolutionary party" is too often, among would-be revolutionary socialists, an expression of an unthought-through yearning for revolutionary socialist competence and adequacy; and too often it encapsulates a false idea of a "revolutionary party" as essentially a "machine", an apparatus,
But revolutionary adequacy in any specific situation will include many factors beside the work of a political machine, many of them not to be created at will by the revolutionaries and dependent on the objective conditions of capitalist society and of the proletariat at a given time.
To see the revolutionary party only as a "machine" is radically to misunderstand its nature and its prime task - that of education.
To go beyond that to the view that the apparatus can say and do anything that "builds the party", more or less irrespective of the effects on the consciousness of the working class, is a vicious and essentially Stalinist travesty of the idea of "building the party".
Often, by way of demagogy and the dominance of agitation-led activity to "build the party", this travesty works against the education 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 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 ideological 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 only 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 and in the actually-existing labour movement. 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 or of pernicious pseudo-radical doctrines, be they Stalinist, Peronist, Christian or Islamic clerical-fascist, or any of the many variants of reactionary anti-imperialism. 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.
4. Building the organisation
To recruit we need contact work - that is, intensive discussion and education work with contacts to convince them to commit themselves whole-heartedly to the working of preparing the proletarian revolution.
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.
To do this effectively and systematically we need a disciplined organisation.
Organisational chaos, lack of basic Marxist education, lack of education in or agreement on our policies and perspectives, will prevent activists from being able to convince contacts (or even mean that many don't even try much instead 'ticking over' in routine labour movement activity).
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.
A "tyranny of structurelessness", far from making the organisation more flexible and open, will lead to the domination of cliques and demagogy, and destroy at its very roots the effectiveness of the organisation as a force for developing clear working-class consciousness.
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 'intellectuals' from non-worker backgrounds being tied by party discipline to activity in the working class.
POLITICS AND TRADE-UNION MILITANCY
Marxists prize, value, and promote working-class industrial militancy.
We know that our socialist cause can triumph only through the action of the working class, and that the working class can rise to the level of revolutionary socialist action only through gaining confidence, solidarity, and organisation in partial struggle. We have no interests apart from those of the working class.
The most favourable climate for the masses of the working class to understand the need for the socialist revolution, and for great numbers to achieve a scientific Marxist outlook, is the climate of mobilisation, action, struggle and confrontation.
At the same time we recognise that industrial militancy has limits. Without organisation and informed strategy, it is not necessarily effective even in winning sectional improvements. Even at its best it can win only sectional improvements, unless it rises to the level of a general strike, and then it can go further only when equipped with political strategy.
Even to win partial improvements within capitalism which extend to the whole working class and have the relative fixity of law - such things as legal rights for workers and unions, or social welfare provision - industrial action must be supplemented by working-class political action of some sort.
Thus, promoting working-class industrial militancy is one of our tasks. But it is not the only one, or even the central one. Our central task is to strive for and promote political and ideological clarity.
Moreover, a small "fighting propaganda group" would be deluding itself if it thought that through ingenious schemes and gambits it could in any short term increase the industrial militancy of the working class as a whole. By trying to do what it cannot possibly do, it would fail to do what it can and must do.
Within anti-cuts committees, we will naturally promote militancy and seek unity in organising action. But we remain ourselves. We cannot escape from our fundamental role, and our fundamental antagonism with most of the would-be left, into some "family of the left" in which the common cause of militancy against the cuts blots out all other issues.
In those committees, most of the time, we will have exactly the same relationship to the would-be left as we have now and for a very long time: that of a propaganda-making minority.
THE MEMORY OF THE CLASS
Trotsky summed up this argument in his formulation of the "rules of the Fourth International":
"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 programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives these are the rules..."
Trotsky also explained that the revolutionary organisation is the "memory of the class". The working class, at high points of struggle, can and does improvise with great creativity, often forcing the Marxists to shake themselves up and re-think in order to "catch up".
But a lucid overview of the mechanisms of capitalism, of the nature and relations of the social classes, of the long historic evolution of which working-class socialism will be the culmination, and of socialist strategy, cannot be improvised. It has to be brought into the struggle by those who have laboured for years or decades in advance to educate themselves and absorb the lessons of past struggles.
Thus the importance of "tradition" for Marxists. If we can see far - and we must see far - it is because we stand on the shoulders of the great struggles and the great teachers of the past.
The working class exists in a bourgeois world, dominated by commerce, which inculcates bourgeois values. It is constantly under bombardment by the bourgeois media, which do the same.
Against all that we have our under-resourced educational and propaganda work; and a large part of that depends on and is enriched by the written residues of the socialist past.
You cannot at will take the working class, or yourself, through the enlightening experience of a general strike. You can teach yourself, and then other workers, about the general strikes of history.
Our traditions are immensely important. They embody our history, our collective, codified experience, spanning generations and the work of generations of socialists. They exemplify our Marxist methodology, our models of how to analyse and think.
We live in a situation where the living aspects of our tradition are dislocated, and embedded in partly alien traditions. Much of the "Trotskyism" on which we base ourselves has been best passed down to us by the "heterodox Trotskyists" of the 1940s and 50s, writers like Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and Julius Jacobson. But all of them, in the end, drifted very far from the politics of their heroic days of the 40s and most of the 50s. They rejected the project of building a revolutionary socialist party, and drifted into "machine" politics (Shachtman) or footloose literary activity. Some elements of the "Trotskyist" essentials come to us more from the "orthodox Trotskyists".
Thus, in striving to integrate the sundered elements of the Trotskyism of Trotsky we face the danger of vapid eclecticism.
Avoiding that is a question of striving for consistency, critical understanding of what we take as our tradition and above all in living by the cardinal rule of Marxist politics to be guided always by the logic of the class struggle, and within that by the interests of the working class, including its "interest" in learning socialist and consistently democratic lessons from its own experience.
This view of "tradition", of the tasks of socialists in relation to the working class, and of the purpose and necessary shape of revolutionary socialist organisations, shapes a view of Marxism different from others we find around us.
Revolutionary Marxism is to be a living, developing, body of theory, constantly functioning as a guide to action. Around us we find "academic Marxism" and "apparatus Marxism".
Apparatus Marxism is a "Marxism" that exists to rationalise what the party apparatus thinks will run best as agitation and as catchphrases and schemes to scoop up support.
Our predominant Marxist culture is largely made up of the various Apparatus Marxisms protected, as behind high tariff walls, by the "party" regimes they serve.
It is a peculiarly rancid species of pseudo-academic "Marxism" from which everything objective, disinterested, spontaneous and creative is banished. It is central to the story of the British SWP, for example. "Party building" calculations determine the "line" and "Marxism" consists in "bending the stick" to justify it.
Lenin rightly argued that revolutionary theory without revolutionary practice is sterile and that revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory is blind. Apparatus Marxism is both blind and sterile because it is not and cannot be a guide to practice. It exists to rationalise a practice that is in fact guided by something else usually, the perceived advantage of the organisation.
For Marxists, practice must be guided by theory, a theory constantly replenished by experience. In Apparatus Marxism the proper relationship of theory to practice and of practice to theory is inverted.
To do what it has to do, a revolutionary socialist organisation must be disciplined. It must be capable of throwing its whole weight into big political tests, and doing it promptly; of taking arguments into the working class in a systematic, coordinated way. It needs a structure which enables an elected and accountable leadership to mobilise the membership rapidly and efficiently, rather than the diffuse and sluggish life typical of social-democratic parties and discussion circles.
This discipline and centralism is inseparable from democracy - a living, active democracy.
The balance between "centralism" and "democracy" will shift from time to time in the life of a revolutionary socialist organisation: at one moment the organisation may need to make a radical turn, very fast, on the initiative of the elected leadership; at another, it may devote much of its energy to open and leisurely debate.
But in the longer view, the "democratic" and "centralist" aspects of "democratic centralism" are inseparable. Without a "centralist" commitment to carry out majority decisions in practice, discussion lacks any weight or grip. Without democracy, centralism degenerates into bureaucratism, an inevitable loss of revolutionary socialist clarity, and demoralisation of the membership.
The "democratic" and "centralist" aspects must be, and can only be, brought together by a serious collective will to study, to learn, and to clarify ideas; and a high level of education, awareness, and active participation in the organisation.
Trotsky summed it up as follows:
"Leninism cannot be conceived of without theoretical breadth, without a critical analysis of the material bases of the political process. The weapon of Marxian investigation must be constantly sharpened and applied. It is precisely in this that tradition consists, and not in the substitution of a formal reference or of an accidental quotation.
Least of all can Leninism be reconciled with ideological superficiality and theoretical slovenliness.
Lenin cannot be chopped up into quotations suited for every possible case, because for Lenin the formula never stands higher than the reality; it is always the tool that makes it possible to grasp the reality and to dominate it. It would not be hard to find in Lenin dozens and hundreds of passages which, formally speaking, seem to be contradictory. But what must be seen is not the formal relationship of one passage to another, but the real relationship of each of them to the concrete reality in which the formula was introduced as a lever. The Leninist truth is always concrete!
As a system of revolutionary action, Leninism presupposes a revolutionary sense sharpened by reflection and experience which, in the social realm, is equivalent to the muscular sensation in physical labour. But revolutionary sense cannot be confused with demagogical flair. The latter may yield ephemeral successes, sometimes even sensational ones. But it is a political instinct of an inferior type.
It always leans toward the line of least resistance. Leninism, on the other hand, seeks to pose and resolve the fundamental revolutionary problems.
Leninism is, first of all, realism, the highest qualitative and quantitative appreciation of reality, from the standpoint of revolutionary action. Precisely because of this it is irreconcilable with the flight from reality behind the screen of hollow agitationalism, with the passive loss of time, with the haughty justification of yesterday's mistakes on the pretext of saving the tradition of the party.
Leninism is genuine freedom from formalistic prejudices, from moralising doctrinalism, from all forms of intellectual conservatism attempting to bind the will to revolutionary action. But to believe that Leninism signifies that 'anything goes' would be an irremediable mistake. Leninism includes the morality, not formal but genuinely revolutionary, of mass action and the mass party. Nothing is so alien to it as functionary-arrogance and bureaucratic cynicism.
A mass party has its own morality, which is the bond of fighters in and for action. Demagogy is irreconcilable with the spirit of a revolutionary party because it is deceitful: by presenting one or another simplified solution of the difficulties of the hour it inevitably undermines the next future, weakens the party's self-confidence.
Swept by the wind and gripped by a serious danger, demagogy easily dissolves into panic. It is hard to juxtapose, even on paper, panic and Leninism.
Leninism is warlike from head to foot. War is impossible without cunning, without subterfuge, without deception of the enemy. Victorious war cunning is a constituent element of Leninist politics.
But, at the same time, Leninism is supreme revolutionary honesty toward the party and the working class. It admits of no fiction, no bubble-blowing, no pseudo-grandeur.
Leninism is orthodox, obdurate, irreducible, but it does not contain so much as a hint of formalism, canon, nor bureaucratism. In the struggle, it takes the bull by the horns".
Democratic centralism cannot operate without a leadership in the organisation which has gained political authority by its intellectual and political efforts, and not through its control of official positions and assets.
Trotsky explained how the leadership of a revolutionary socialist organisation needs to deal with serious issues:
The first priority on any big political question is "a serious educational discussion in the light of... events. If... thoughts at the beginning are obsessed by the perspective of personal degradation, i.e., demotions, loss of prestige, disqualifications, and so on, the whole discussion would become envenomed and the authority of the leadership would be compromised.
If the leadership on the contrary opens a ruthless fight against [erroneous ideas] but at the same time assures all the necessary guarantees for the discussion itself and for the minority, the result would be not only an ideological victory but an important growth in the authority of the leadership".
A revolutionary socialist organisation needs an "apparatus" - offices, publications, staff - and it believes that those central tasks deserve to be done by the best activists available. It rejects the separation between "apparatus" and public leaders typefied by social-democratic parties.
As Cannon explains: "The pre-war social-democracy was a sprawling, slow-moving reformist organisation which proceeded on the theory that it had unlimited time to advance to socialism at a snail's pace... The leadership in the main corresponded to the character of the party. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, preachers, writers, professors - people of this kind who lived their real lives in another world and gave an evening, or at most two evenings, a week of their time to the socialist movement for the good of their souls- they were the outstanding leaders of the prewar Socialist Party.
They decided things.. They were the speakers on ceremonial occasions; they posed for their photographs and gave interviews to the newspapers... As for the party functionaries, the people who devoted all their time to the daily work and routine of the party, they were simply regarded as flunkeys to be loaded with the disagreeable tasks, poorly paid and blamed if anything went wrong. The real honours and the decisive influence went to the leaders who had professional occupations outside the party...
When we organised the Communist Party in this country in 1919, under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, we put a stop to all this nonsense. We had the opinion that leadership of the revolutionary movement was a serious matter, a profession in itself, and the highest and most honourable of all professions".
Because the activists staffing the "apparatus" see things this way, they must and will also understand - and the membership in general will insist on - the neutrality of that "apparatus", as an administrative machine, in internal disputes. The activists staffing the "apparatus" will, and should, argue their views with energy, as individuals; at the same time they make sure that the administrative machine acts even-handedly.
Our AWL constitution gives AWL activists not only the right but the duty to express their own views, when they are in a minority, both within the AWL and outside. Activists should be disciplined in action, and they should not express minority views in such a way as to campaign against, or obstruct, majority-agreed AWL activity. They should equally not pretend to believe what they do not in fact believe, because to do so compromises the drive for truth which is at the base of all revolutionary socialist politics.
Lenin summed this up in an article from 1906:
"The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action... Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party programme must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings."
BUILDING THE AWL
"The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organised and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware." - Gramsci, The Modern Prince
1. Whether on the offensive, as in the 1970s, or on the defensive as today, what the British working class lacks above all is a party of its own - a party not just organisationally but politically independent from all the parties of the ruling class, and able to fuse the organisation and struggles of the most advanced workers with Marxist theory. The AWL is not such a party, not even in embryo: yet in the struggle to build it, the development of the AWL is of vital importance.
2. We are a small group, with no more than one hundred activists. Whatever our organisational failings, we punch above our weight. However, the prospects for us rising to meet the rising challenges of the current period depend on us growing substantially.
The political and social environment (economic crisis, widespread though diffuse anti-capitalist sentiment, anti-Toryism, anti-cuts struggles) means lots of possibilities for a socialist organisation to grow. But: although our recruitment has improved recently, it has scarcely outpaced the inevitable slow loss of the occasional older activist through attrition. We need to raise our game.
When you've been small for a long time and not grown much for a while, you can begin to doubt, psychologically if not intellectually, that large-scale recruitment (even large-scale relative to our small size) is possible. To counter this, let us look at some positive examples from our own organisation.
In Sheffield, the branch had doubled its size in five years: we have twelve activists, the majority of them young and recruited in the last three years. If they can be effectively integrated into improved branch routines, Sheffield AWL will be in a good position to take further steps forward. In Hull, beginning with two young people in 2007 we have now five, with strong possibilities for further expansion. In South London, partly as a result of the election campaign, we have opened the possibility of building a new base in Camberwell and Peckham; and have a greatly expanded, and still expanding, contact list.
None of these examples is particularly dramatic - but if similar things could be replicated across the country, the AWL would in fact begin to grow substantially. Even one or two new comrades making a turn towards recruitment can make all the difference in building a branch; even one or two new faces in a branch can greatly improve its atmosphere and encourage everyone to raise their aspirations and level of activity. And in the new situation, much more than that is possible.
3.1. Our environment has changed from the relative boom of 1992-2007 to acute crisis (2008) and now to an era of huge cuts, and maybe a further general economic downturn. This changes the parameters for AWL-building.
a. We cannot know how big the mobilisations against the Lib/Tory cuts, and how widespread new openness to alternatives to capitalism, will become. But neither the most optimistic Tory, nor the most dejected socialist, can doubt that there will be some new mobilisations and new anti-capitalist sentiment.
b. The anti-cuts committees which have already started in many areas are almost certain to continue, to spread to all major areas, and to expand as the cuts work through over the next several years.
c. These anti-cuts committees are likely to create, for the first time in many years, a more or less unified left milieu where different currents of the left cooperate long-term in day-to-day activities and compete and clash in debate. The picture usual for most of two decades - different left groups promoting their different schemes and campaigns in different circles, with little interaction - will become less dominant.
d. AWL branches thus have a chance to find an area of activity, in a local anti-cuts committee, where all the branch's members can work together, and in a broad and lively milieu. The picture common in recent years - of most activity of most AWL members being individual activity, and AWL branches organising little collective activity - will become less dominant.
e. The last year or so has already brought an improvement in the reception for street and door-to-door sales of socialist newspapers. Reaction to the cuts - even if it falls short of the scale we want - is likely to produce greater improvements.
If we adapt our paper, and our tempo and brio of activity, to the new circumstances, then regular stalls and sales can become central activities for AWL branches, drawing their members together in outward-looking public activity and generating a constant trickle of new political contacts.
f. What happens in the Labour Party is more uncertain, but even a modest revival of life there, opening up possibilities of even limited systematic AWL fraction work, would additionally improve conditions for integrating AWL members into collective AWL interventionist activity.
a. Turn outwards.
b. Re-focus our efforts onto collective AWL activity in the labour movement and on the streets. There has been an understandable tendency in recent years for more AWL effort to be diffused into individual cottage-industry-type activity (small campaigns here and there, etc.) We should avoid brutal and destructive tearing-down of activities in which individual AWL members have a big personal investment, but our strong bias should be on redirecting efforts into collective AWL activity in the labour movement and on the streets.
c. Have every AWL branch mobilise all its members into collective activity to initiate, develop, and fight for AWL policies within, local anti-cuts committees.
d. Have every AWL branch also mobilise all its members into regular participation in regular public stalls and sales.
e. Any exceptions, of comrades who continue active only in special fields, and do not join the rest of the branch in its collective activities, should be allowed only after discussion and "for cause".
f. These things - points a, b, c, d, and e above - are things that require of us only the will to do them. Whether, for example, the anti-cuts committees are big or small, whether public response to stalls and paper sales is better or worse, depends not just on us but on broader developments around us. But the basic decision to get AWL branches working as collectives depends only on us, and can be done even if external circumstances are at the less favourable end of the range of prospects which we can see now.
The basic decision means a fight within the AWL to raise every member out of the sluggishness which we have all, to some degree, fallen into over recent years, and into an awareness of the new conditions and our new responsibilities. Some members will turn out to have had their vitality and awareness so much sapped by recent years, and their immersion in a routine involving little public political activity so entrenched, that they will not rise to our new responsibilities. They should not be allowed to thwart the basic decision to turn outwards. If a determined attempt to convince and rally those comrades cannot succeed, then they should be converted to sympathiser status and asked to do what they are willing to do in the way of providing financial and occasional activist help to AWL. The remaining activists will carry out the turn to public activity and build the branch without them, rather than being held back.
g. Make sure that every AWL branch, even the smallest, organises and advertises a public or open meeting at least once a month.
3.3. To recruit we must in the first place be visible as AWL - as a group doing visible collective activity. We must be out on the streets.
We must also be able to "show" people interested in AWL what the AWL does as a collective, and how they themselves can contribute if they become AWL members.
To integrate and "hold" new members we must be able quickly to:
i. give them a basic Marxist education (of a systematic sort - not just expose them to a series of more-or-less interesting but diverse discussions);
ii. equip them to be able to speak for AWL ideas in meetings and with people met on the streets or door-to-door;
iii. integrate them into regular staple activity which is accessible and easily sustainable on a basic level; which makes sense; which involves them in some political dialogue where they argue for AWL ideas; and in which they can see how their effort produces results (even modest ones, measured in such tangible things as more sales, more contacts, etc.)
We have had a few cases recently of people joining AWL but never really being integrated into collective AWL activity and then quickly fading away. Well-organised, reliable, purposeful, interventionist, regular collective branch activity is the only remedy to such waste of possibilities.
Converting branches, from loose discussion circles and clearing-houses for exchanging reports of individual efforts in unions or campaigns, to collectively-intervening teams, is decisive here.
3.4. Of course AWL members heavily immersed in individual trade-union work will continue that work. Especially given the bias of our trade union base towards public-service employment, it is hard to imagine any case where remaining outside collective activity in anti-cuts committees and paper sales and stalls will be rational even from the point of view of effectiveness in the trade-union activity.
Of course, AWL activists who at present are isolated in their town or city will find things more difficult. But they too can take part in anti-cuts activity which is likely to provide a larger canvass than most other activity recently. They too can do regular public sales and stalls.
4. We also need a change in culture.
Comrades need to see the organisation as something they have ownership over and are responsible for. This goes above all for recruitment. Contact work and recruitment are not things to be done by 'other people' (the office, more experienced comrades, younger comrades). They need to be the responsibility of the whole organisation, or as much as possible of it. The same goes for selling the paper.
AWL members should be organised into regular participation in a public paper sale. Every AWL member should be asked, each month, in a branch discussion, to report on at least one conversation where they ask someone to join AWL. (The person they ask may be someone who seems certain to say no. That does not make asking pointless, let alone counterproductive).
We also need to get away from the idea that AWL membership is 'terribly difficult', far beyond the ability of most people we meet and certainly working-class people who are politically raw and new to the left. Yes, we have complex, subtle ideas that cannot be dumbed down. Yes, membership in a revolutionary organisation is a serious commitment. But we should turn the defeatist attitude on its head by insisting that membership in such an organisation is both necessary and possible for those who really want to change the world.