How to organise to change the world

Submitted by martin on 31 January, 2011 - 3:35

The following speech was given by Workers' Liberty member Ed Maltby at a public debate with anarchist blogger Laurie Penny at the University of London Union on 27 January 2011. The title of the debate was "What kind of 'new politics?"

Our starting point is that revolution is possible. We think that the working class - and only the working class - is capable of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with something better. Students, people from different class backgrounds, and from different campaigns can have a role to play in this process but as auxiliaries to the working class. It's this central belief that conditions my view of revolutionary organisation. If you think that the working class is incapable of making a revolution, or that capitalism is the best form of society possible, then none of what I am about to say will make sense to you.

We live in a capitalist world. Capitalism is not the only source of oppression – patriarchal and religious oppressions persist which pre-date capitalism – but capitalism, the rule of profit, is responsible for most of the cruelties and absurdities of the way our world is organised: war, hunger, environmental destruction and all the rest: it comes from the exploitation of class by class.

The mainspring of capitalism is the exploitation of wage labour by capitalists. And because of this, the working class, the class which has its hands on the wheels of production, the class which is taught by capitalism how to co-operate on a global scale in order to operate the machinery of capitalist society; they can overthrow this system, re-organise society on the basis of common ownership, and social need, not profit.

This class has no class beneath it to exploit. It owns nothing. Collective ownership of the means of production is the only way that the working class can rule in its own name and in its own interests. The only way for a mass of people to own anything collectively is through mass democracy. And that means that the working class must take power consciously. It must understand what it is doing. Millions of workers must understand the process of revolution, and choose it, and debate it publicly. A cadre of experts cannot do it on their behalf, or it’s not a revolution. It cannot happen gradually, or by accident. A democratic working-class movement must consciously decide to seize power, together, and do it. Otherwise the workers will not be liberating themselves.

In order to do this, the working class needs a way of coming together, to debate, to consider the experience of struggle, to educate itself and develop revolutionary ideas. Under a constant barrage of capitalist propaganda and pressure from cradle to grave, this cannot be done by workers individually. It needs to be a collective effort.

So why a party, and not just a sort of revolutionary think-tank churning out ideas? Firstly, because think-tank-type bodies are not democratic or collective, really. You need not just a collection of individuals writing papers - you need those ideas to be the property of everyone in the organisation, collectively worked on, debated - and put into practice.

Secondly, an organisation needs not only to talk about ideas, but it needs to organise, teaching through struggle, intervening in all the clashes between workers and bosses, small and large, to increase the confidence and self-activity of the workers around the organisation. A party like this is not like a typical bourgeois party, or a Stalinist party, which has an active leadership and a passive membership or voter base. A revolutionary workers' organisation needs to break down the division between leaders and led, to create a struggling collective of equals. This is a minority, sure - but it's a minority trying constantly to raise the rest of the workers to its own level, through struggle.

It's true that sometimes, during a great upsurge in struggle, miracles happen. In a small way, we have seen this with the student movement, which came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, thousands of people were thrown into activity and suddenly received a political education which the existing left organisations couldn't have given them. They were able to improvise an impressive movement, quickly. But an understanding of capitalist society, an understanding of the history of working-class struggle, in short, the idea that revolution is needed - these things can't be improvised or thrown together at the last minute. And these things determine the fate of a sudden upsurge in struggle – who does the movement look to for political direction? Who do they look to, to answer the question, “what next?” What are the ideas that guide the movement? If activists haven’t been armed with Marxist ideas in advance, other ideas, sometimes useless ones, sometimes plain reactionary ones, can fill the void.

Also, thousands of workers can't be taken through an experience of struggle at will. You can't wish a general strike into being, and it is very hard to tell when one will take place. The lessons of past struggles need to be remembered and transmitted from one generation to the next. You can’t expect these educational experiences to be renewed so regularly. After a big defeat, there can follow a long lull, during which lessons learned from the last upsurge can be forgotten, or their meaning corrupted. This current movement will also recede, its lessons will also be forgotten - unless they are preserved by a conscious effort by a stable group.

At this point, it’s important to note that a lot of people are disgusted by the idea of a Leninist, revolutionary party. This has got to do with people’s experience of how most of the so-called Leninist organisations in existence today operate. There will be some people in the room tonight who have been chewed up and spat out by the internal regimes of some of these groups. It doesn’t help that most of these organisations describe themselves as Trotskyist – when they have inherited ways of thinking, organising and debating which come directly from Stalinism. I don’t intend to defend these organisations. I think people are right to mistrust them. In Workers’ Liberty, we are for a new politics. We want to establish a culture on the left that’s free of these traits. One of the things we want our group to do is function as a power hose to clean this crap off the left. But it’s important to look at exactly what these traits are.

1) Undemocratic internal regimes.

Put simply, in many organisations on the left, members are prevented from meaningfully debating or questioning their party’s line. The pages of most leftwing newspapers don’t contain debate: only the official line is presented. If there is any discussion of a given topic within the ranks of the party, it is not presented in the paper. That means that the paper can’t function as a tool for the movement to hash out ideas – or as an effective memory bank for the class. In most left groups, factions are banned or subject to ridiculous bureaucratic restrictions. But factional struggle – organising collectively to change your comrades’ minds on a given idea – that’s the mechanism through which an organisation thinks! Many people in this room will personally know people who have been expelled from the SWP for the crime of “factionalism” – the idea that factions should be banned is ludicrous!

This is related to

2) Saying the line, instead of what you think

A few years ago, there was a split in the socialist group Workers’ Power, over the world economy and perspectives in Britain. The group pretty much split down the middle. A huge fight was going on over a crucial question. But no-one outside their organisation knew about the disagreement inside the organisation until it had already happened. Their incredibly strict rules governing debate meant that the argument had to take place in secret. This means that not only did their public press not carry anything about what all members of the group presumably thought was an extremely important political issue – but in conversations, members had to pretend that no disagreement existed! The culture of the group, if not the rulebook, obliged members to say the opposite of what they thought.

This culture, which bureaucratically controls arguments, is dominant on the left. It teaches people that open disagreement can only ever be hostile, or “sectarian”. It teaches people that the theory of a group has to be the property of experts on the central committee, and it is not anyone else’s business to seriously question it. It criminalises dissent within the group. Reason is replaced by bureaucratic manoeuvre. This is not a way of teaching people to emancipate themselves. It’s not an effective way of understanding reality. It is chemically pure Stalinism and we have to ditch it.

3) The party as an end in itself

The root of a lot of these maladies is the idea that the party itself, rather than the working class, will carry out the revolution. A lot of so-called Leninists have the idea of the party as a kind of army, which will organise a lot of people around one will, and this army will carry out the revolution. We don't think that. We don't think that. Revolution will be a conscious act of working-class self-emancipation or it will not be a revolution.

We don't see “the revolutionary party” as a monolithic machine which must simply be built slavishly until it is big enough to seize power. We see revolutionary parties – and undoubtedly in any revolutionary upsurge there would be more than one – as democratic collectives of revolutionary workers that seek to agitate, educate and organise. A revolutionary party is an organised political tendency within the working class seeking to convince the majority of its ideas; it is not an external force seeking to “lead” the working class like some kind of army.

We think that the basis of mass revolutionary movements has to be feeling and political conviction. A party committee cannot produce a revolution to order, and party cadres can't carry one out themselves. But a lot of groups, like the SWP, seem to think that this is the case. SWP activists have a stock speech about the need for the revolutionary party. They say, "the bourgeoisie is very organised, and we need to be very organised too. That's why we need a party". It's true that we need to be organised. But we need ideas, too! The SWP, with their ban on serious internal discussion, the sacredness of the Central Committee line, view the party not as a debater, an educator and a persuader: they view it as an apparatus, which projects instructions and disciplines the activity of the movement: "It doesn't matter what you think, all these debates are boring - go and hand out these leaflets!" But this is not a project for self-emancipation. This is a project for building an organisation for its own sake.

4) Finally, when you get into this state of mind – when you think that the party is the only entity that matters, and it is by the disciplined action of the party alone that the revolution will be brought about, then you become disconnected from the basic spirit of revolutionary socialism – the idea that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves. You cease to define your politics in terms of what you are for – working-class self-activity and democracy – and you frame it in terms of what you are against. So we see a lot of the left basing their politics on an “anti-imperialism” which is about making alliances or politically bigging up forces which are reactionary to the core. The common sense of the UK left is to support Hamas and Hezbollah, because they are “against Israel”; the Iranian regime because it is “against America”; and the Cuban regime because it is “against capitalism”. Most recently, and tragically, we have started to see some leftists in the UK cheerlead for Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Ennahda Party in Tunisia. It doesn’t matter that these forces are fundamentally hostile to the workers’ movement and that whenever they have the chance they crack down on workers’ self-organisation. You come to these dreadful political conclusions, cheerleading for fascist regimes, when you forget the central thing – working-class democracy and working-class self-emancipation.

Now, some people, including a broad tendency of thought that I think Laurie represents, have turned to alternative organisational models. As I say, I think that the urge to turn away from Stalinist forms of organising and find an atmosphere where activists can breathe more easily is correct. But I think that from the point of view of making a revolution, these strategies are simply not adequate.

Look at UK Uncut. It’s a very impressive tool for organising one thing – protests outside of tax-dodging businesses. It provides a basic template, and periodic call-outs for action, which allow a lot of people to perform one kind of action very effectively. Taken on its own, this is good – it raises awareness of a given issue, knocks the authority of the rich, and gives people a good experience when they take part in these protests. But it can’t go further than that. There is no overall programme for collectively debating the next step. There is no way of elaborating a body of ideas and taking ownership over them collectively.

You see already, in the frankly ludicrous actions bigging up John Lewis as an alternative model for the economy, how much difficulty the network has in elaborating an alternative vision for society. Followers of UKUncut on twitter are basically reliant on the elite group at the centre of the network coming up with better ideas. That, or they have to think up ideas themselves, alone, and act on them, alone. This isn’t out of malice from the organisers of UKUncut. The network just doesn’t have the organisational structure to support an ongoing debate about a thoroughgoing alternative to capitalism. Likewise, in order to make a revolution, you will need to work for years to argue for socialist ideas and agitate in the workers’ movement. This means doing a lot of different things – not just the same kind of thing over and over again. UKUncut doesn’t have the organisational structure to keep people in organised activity over a number of decades, nor does it have an organisational programme of collective education which could serve as a memory-bank of the movement. It is not adequate.

There is also a sensibility among the advocates of so-called “new”, loosely-networked movements, that debate over ideas is unnecessarily harsh and that it disrupts unity – that the ideas will sort of sort themselves out over the course of the struggle. Likewise, there is the idea that ideological problems could be almost solved automatically by a loose milieu of campaign groups dissolving and reforming over and over again.

Now, this is true of UK Uncut – an ideologically loose movement can coalesce around one idea, without nitpicking about it, and pull off some great actions. But it’s only one idea, not a full programme – and it’s also a very easy sell. The idea that the banks should pay tax is a very easy sell. If you want to pull off actions around one basically uncontentious idea that it’s hard to disagree with, then you can make do with no ideological debate.

But if you want to convince people of the need for socialist revolution and for the workers to overthrow capitalism – you need to say things which are very unpopular, and figure out some ideas which are very complicated. You also need to draw conclusions from them. In order to do that, you can’t say – “oh, the ideas will sort themselves out, let’s just go leafleting”. You need to think hard and collectively about these ideas, question them constantly to be sure they’re right – and draw conclusions from them. A loose network where actions are disconnected from debates over ideas, and where debates are sort of relaxed and fluid because what everyone is going to do tomorrow does not really depend on them – that’s fine if you’re going with the flow. In fact, it is a recipe for following the path of least resistance. But if you want to think difficult and unpopular things, it’s not adequate.

Some people in the movement are hostile to ideological debate, seeing it as a self-indulgence for privileged blokes, and a distraction from the struggle (sadly, they are sometimes right!). They think that we can make a movement that works without talking about ideas. Or, if they don’t think that “officially”, then in practice the way they operate as activists is informed by a disdain of political debate and political education. Well, look at the workers of Tunisia. They have just overthrown one government, and they may be about to overthrow another. They're standing in the streets now, looking at each other and saying, "what next? we've got rid of one crappy system and we need to replace it with something else. But what?" And who is going to answer that question? Who is going to say, "what next?" The Islamists? The Ba'athists? The new cabinet? At this point in the movement, the ideas that are dominant in the working class movement are going to determine everything. If you think that rigorous debate of ideas, and struggle for the right ideas, are not important in social movements, you are saying that you never expect the British working class to get to that point; you never expect us to be standing over a defeated government, asking 'what next?'. You don't think workers can make a revolution.

To finish: if you think that society is basically OK, or that it can be cleaned up with a tweak here, or a nudge there, then a variety of single issue campaigns, moving in loose convoy – tax avoidance here, tar sands there – that’s sufficient.

But if you want to overthrow capitalism, then here-and-there tweaks and nudges will not do. You will need to say unpopular things, remember events you are not supposed to remember, face danger with comrades, and maybe alone. You will need to elaborate strategies for the mass movement, and work patiently to win people to them. In the twists and turns of a long and sometimes rapid class struggle, you will need to examine your ideas and those of your comrades to make sure you are on the right track. You – and not just you, but thousands of revolutionary class-fighters, need to learn, be trained, and train others, make sacrifices for an idea you constantly question, face enormous pressures, and make a long commitment. You can’t do that alone. You need people around you who you can rely on, every day. You can’t use twitter for that. It means a democratic party, a revolutionary organisation. And if I have convinced you of that, then join Workers’ Liberty, and help us create one.


Submitted by AWL on Tue, 01/02/2011 - 00:55

...Laurie Penny said very explicitly in the debate that she is an anarchist. Maybe you think she has a confused definition of what that means, but that's how she identifies politically.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 01/02/2011 - 13:41

Don't be a pedant, Tom. Both quotes use the term 'army', yes. But the political meaning is quite clearly different. It's to do with the relationship of the party to the class. The first (from my speech) refers to the idea of the party as a machine which must get extremely big and which, once it's big enough to marshall a significant part of the working class under its discipline, will command them to make a revolution. We disagree - we think that a party must educate, organise and prepare the working class for power, and it cannot make a revolution happen through the exercise of party discipline.

The second quote relates to how a combat party of the type we envisage should operate - internally disciplined and efficient, as well as democratic, and relating to the class in the manner of people who want to convey ideas, convince, educate, agitate, organise. Wanting your organisation to be as efficient and professional as possible does not mean that you see your organisation as a monolithic party-army.

As ever, Tom, this is clever-clever wordplay masquerading as serious political commentary.

Ed Maltby

Submitted by DR_SEUSS on Fri, 11/02/2011 - 20:15

Is it possible to also have what laura said on the site?

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 30/04/2012 - 17:43

Hi Spanner,

There's a problem with what you're saying here, which is actually lots of young people who certainly do consider themselves anarchists, revolutionaries and anticapitalists *do* hold a variety of the politics that Penny was arguing for (loose networks, UKUncut activism, new social media making "old-style" organisations obsolete and so on). So if you want to engage in an argument with this large group of people calling themselves anarchists, it's best to engage with the ideas that they actually hold, rather than telling them, "listen, we don't care about what you actually think. We're going to make a polemic against SolFed and AFed, who are proper anarchists, unlike you. Your ideas don't merit discussion and who are you kidding, you're no kind of anarchist."

You are right, though, that the politics of SolFed and the AFed need to be addressed separately. Within the pamphlet
"Anarchism and Working Class Politics"
which this article forms part of, there are several articles which do that.

this article by Martin Thomas addresses the way the AFed approach revolutionary organisation and the question of tradition and theory (i.e. they don't take a systematic approach to educating activists in an organised way or regard theoretical debate and dispute as being of great consequence in the way that we do) and this article and this article look at one of the most major disagreements that we have with SolFed - which is the idea of working inside the mainstream trade union movement with a view to transforming it. That's something SolFed rejects (or rather - at the level of theory they reject it while their cadres generally engage in mainstream labour movement activity of some sort in practice: that's another disagreement we'd have, which is about systematically applying theory to practice) and the AWL thinks is central to the self-liberation of the working class.

Ed Maltby

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