18th century England was populated by a large number of Protestant sects. They formed a colourful underground scene outside the official Anglican church with secret meetings, conscientious reading of the Scriptures, feverish searching for the purest teaching, collective ecstasies and awakenings, charismatic wandering preachers, rousing pamphlets, internal disputes, expulsions, splits, new foundings, conversions, attempts at reunification and more of the same. These currents can be traced back to the previous wave of social struggles, which had shaken the country in the 17th century.
The actors in the struggles of those times had formulated their social disputes in a religious language, as no alternative was thinkable in their time which had barely left the Middle Ages.
After the ebbing of the storms, the sects remained, but cut off from the movements whose adequate ideological expression they once were, they led a notably sterile and unreal existence. Yet they determinedly held fast to their beliefs until the beginnings of large-scale industry and the external signal of the French revolution announced a new age of class struggles. These were now carried through in purely worldly terms and relegated the religious sectarians to the back of the historic stage.
Despite their lack of contemporary significance, the sects could still claim that they had played some part in the preparation of the more recent unrest. However much of a digression their teachings were, however trivial the reasons for their factional struggles, however misconceived their vanity was, it was in these groups that members of the working classes first learnt to read and write, to give up drink, to debate, to speak in meetings, to take up contact with other towns and to build their own brotherhoods independently of external authorities. Through the myths of Old Corruption, the Whore of Babylon and the New Jerusalem, they also preserved an elementary awareness of the desirability of a more rational world.
The relationship between the remnants of the proletarian uprisings of the 20th century and the revolution of the future looks very similar.
Each of the little groups, which today lead a meagre existence, bases itself on a particular fraction or episode of struggles long past, whose once essential drawing of lines and positionings are today without practical importance. The next upsurge will push them to one side; it will take up and totally transform the experience of all previous attempts, instead of relating only to a particular tradition. At any rate, the splinters maintain these partial traditions, which is their historic justification in times of ebb.
More than others, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is aware of the depth of the current crisis and the scale of the future tasks. “We feel”, writes Cathy Nugent in Solidarity 3-112, “that the basic socialist ideas of the last 150 years or more have, at the start of the 21st century, been eroded, damaged, lied about and buried. We see our job as unearthing and re-explaining those ideas.” In order to carry out this job, comrade Chris Ford sees it to be necessary to go beyond the narrow tradition the AWL relates itself to. Therefore, in issue 3/111 of Solidarity, he advocates seeking “to transcend our fragmented situation by considering all of the other critical Marxists”.
In his time, VI Lenin went even further. He urged his comrades not only to assess all previous tendencies of proletarian rebellion, but to take into account the thoughts of the older bourgeois radicals, too. In his writing On the Significance of Militant Materialism, for instance, he encourages his comrades to re-publish the materialist works of the French enlightenment:
“Engels long ago advised the contemporary leaders of the proletariat to translate the militant atheist literature of the late eighteenth century for mass distribution among the people. We have not done this up to the present, to our shame be it said.”
I propose that Workers’ Liberty supplement published in this paper should no longer be limited to reprint the works of a small number of Trotskyists. It should open its pages to the whole range of documents of subversion over the centuries, from different political tendencies as well as from different areas of thought.
“These masses should be … made familiar with facts from the most diverse spheres of life, they should be approached in every possible way, so as to interest them, rouse them from their religious torpor, stir them front the most varied angles and by the most varied methods, and so forth.” (Lenin). And what is true for the masses, is even more true for the cadres.
To create the germs of the new rise, it will be essential to rouse a climate of curiosity, a spirit of exploration, which searches the past and present for means to challenge the status quo. Otherwise, we will not leave the between times behind us.
• The article is based on a text which will be published in the next issue of the German bulletin Magazin (www.magazindaktion.tk), which the author helps to edit.