During the 1980s, a lot of people who thought of themselves as Marxists [grew] indifferent or hostile to any project of building a Marxist organisation. This tribe, and it was quite an important component of the Labour left, marched or ambled, in so far as it expressed itself explicitly, under the idea: we will develop the influence of Marxism by promoting left-wing ideas in the existing broad labour movement, trade unions and Labour Party.
No socialist organisation beyond the Labour Party and its coteries and careerist cliques was needed. The existing structures were sufficient. This view was not often expressed in coherent argument, yet it was a most important current of thought or half-thought in the labour movement, the “position” of numbers of ex-WRP, ex-SWP, and ex-Militant people who turned the sectarian fetish of “building the party” inside out, and of younger activists who took their cue from them.
This is an important question again now, in the days of the Corbyn surge. Routine labour movement activity is counterposed to the creation of a Marxist movement that is politically and organisationally independent, has a distinct job to do, and rhythms and short term concerns “of its own”.
The structures and ethos of either the Labour Party or the trade unions can not substitute for the specific structures required for all-round Marxist — Bolshevik — activity on the three fronts of the class struggle, the trade union, the political front, and the battle of ideas. You cannot meaningfully develop the “influence of Marxism” as a revolutionary force without building a revolutionary party. In the 1920s Trotsky thought that such a party, the Communist Party then, might slot into the existing framework of a union-backed broad Labour Party. “The Communist Party will occupy the place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents”.
At the end of the day, both formulas — spreading Marxism and campaigning to invigorate the labour movement in general, and building a revolutionary organisation — mean one and the same thing. At a certain point in the process they will have matched up and merged into one: a mass revolutionary party at the head of the broader labour movement. It is a matter of working out concretely at a given moment which is best of the possible ways the organised collective of Marxists, be they more or less numerous, can relate to an existing mass reformist labour movement and to ongoing working-class struggles.
More. The Marxists organise themselves so as to fight the class struggle on all three fronts — now. It is ridiculous to suggest that Marxists must wait until the movement is transformed before immersing themselves in the immediate class struggle, trade union struggles, for example, and doing that effectively, that is, as an organised force. Equally ridiculous is the related idea that an organised collective of Marxists able to act coherently as a fighting organisation is useless in the class struggle here and now. Or any idea that we can transform the labour movement apart from the class struggle.
In 1984-5, the miners’ strike could have been won with solidarity action by dockers and other key workers, or had what remained of the local government left, notably Liverpool, opted to fight and coordinate its activity with that of the striking miners. A network of rank-and-file activists in key positions across industry, even if only a few thousand strong, might have won solidarity for the miners — that is, made the difference between possible victory and the all-too-real defeat for the miners, and for the whole working-class movement. Who will build that sort of movement if not the Marxists organised as a militant, distinct (for now) minority? If not now, when; if not us, who?
Without revolutionary organisation we can only babble or maintain a preaching sectarian aloofness, muttering whatever self-consoling excuses we can foist on ourselves. This is the answer to those who conclude from a bad experience with the kitsch-Bolshevik organisations that everything a small Marxist organisation does, beyond routine labour movement activity, is futile and sectarian. Moreover, individual Marxists naturally vary in knowledge, experience, and aptitude from person to person and area to area. One purpose of a Marxist organisation is to raise the level of the Marxism which the Marxists educate for to the highest level the collective can achieve.
The organisation needed to do the things that the Marxists must do, and only Marxists can do, has to be built over years of smaller struggles, in advance of the big struggles and crises. It has to sustain, and educate itself, by formulating and checking adequate collective responses to political events. That cannot happen without the continual interaction of the Marxist organisation with the working-class struggle and the mass working-class and other movements. A “Marxism” lacking embodiment in a militant organisation which strives for leadership in economic and political struggles would be like the clock with neither battery nor spring nor digits: an absurdist joke. Two short quotations from basic Marxist texts sum up the Marxist position here:
“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement” — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.
“To base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle... these are the rules” — Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism.
Socialists who know the ABCs of Marxist politics do not wilfully try to “build the party” apart from the labour movement and the working class. But, equally, they do not sink the revolutionary group into the rhythms and norms of a labour movement which is not yet revolutionary and which at best involves only a minority of the working class. That is as much a recipe for suicide as the antics of the sectarians — by an overdose of tranquilisers rather than an excess of one or other of the sectarian hallucinogenics.
The labour movement now has another chance to transform, sharpen, and rebuild itself in politics. That transformation cannot happen spontaneously, as a spin-off of trade union class struggle. Nor can it happen as a by-product of political reform-socialist efforts (for example through the Labour Party under Corbyn). Unless the Marxists are strong enough to shape events we get fiascos and muddle and confusion as in the Bennite left of the 1980s. And catastrophic defeats and regressions.
Marxists know that as well as evolution there is devolution, regression, defeat. That was true around 1980. It is true now. The politics of the Corbynites and their Morning Star stink not only of their own wrongheadedness but also, already, of the new defeats they may well bring down on the labour movement. The last thing the working class needs is another pseudo-Bolshevik “revolutionary party”. But it does need a democratic, rational, non-sectarian Bolshevik organisation to fight the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and for Marxist ideas and class struggle militancy in the labour movement. Again: if not now, when; if not us, who?
We must build a democratic Marxist organisation, not a pseudo-Bolshevik sect counterposed, or half-counterposed, to the mass labour movement — a coherent three-front class-struggle Marxist organisation. We must do that, as slowly as necessary and as quickly as possible. A Marxist organisation, to be effective, to be Marxist in any solid sense, must be an organisation where regular activity with the organisation and regular socialist self-education are conditions of membership. It must have coherent, coordinated, planned, collective activity. It must have a structure of democratically elected and accountable committees and organisers capable of deciding and carrying through prompt political responses.
It must supervise its members who gain official positions in the movement. To proselytise, to promote its ideas, it must publish and distribute newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, books, leaflets, workplace bulletins, resolutions. No systematic development of Marxist politics, any more than of any other substantial connected body of ideas, is possible without systematically defining, studying, and criticising ideas in print. It must use the internet systematically, too. These requirements for a Marxist organisation are liable, in today’s left, to be censured as “sectarian”. They are in fact part of what we must learn from the real history of Bolshevism in its great days. They are necessary today if the labour movement is really to be transformed.
Gregory Zinoviev wrote to the IWW in January 1920, as the Communist International was gathering its initial forces: “History does not ask whether we like it or not, whether the workers are ready or not. Here is the opportunity. Take it — and the world will belong to the workers; leave it — there may not be another for generations...”
The WRP Healyites and then the SWP turned into retrograde sects because they did not understand how the work of building the revolutionary party must be related to the already-existing mass labour movements, and to other socialists. And because they understood Bolshevism as a matter of building a near-depoliticised machine.
Where their mirror-image “Marxists” sink — often without trace — completely into the existing labour movement, the sectarians conceive of “building the Leninist party” as a process more or less fully autonomous from the existing movement and even, sometimes, in practice if not in lucid theory, from the working class. The idea that Marxists can be fully autonomous in relation to the working class and the labour movement is absurd.
Yet some autonomy of the Marxists is essential. You cannot do all that needs to be done by way of the existing structures of the British labour movement alone, or by way of the existing mass consciousness of the labour movement. Both remove or minimise the creative activity of Marxists as an organised force in the present and future evolution of the mass labour movement. That is the real lesson which the experience and the work of the Bolsheviks passes down through a hundred years to our time and our struggles. The organisational sectarians are sterile because they stand aside, mistaking political onanism for fruitful political activity; the others are sterile because they cling self-distortingly to the existing structures and become parasitically dependent on them, incapable of independent initiative. Passengers are not builders of new tracks and better engines!
They fail to develop the sinews and muscles of an independent organisation in relation to the class, the class struggle, and the existing reformist labour movement. They fail to be what socialists must be: the representatives of the movement’s future, active in the here and now to carve out that future. James Connolly said it well: “The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce”. Of course, the majority at a given moment has to set the politics and the goals of the organisation, and democratically elected and controlled officials have to be given authority to direct work day-to-day.
If it is to have effect, the organisation must be made up of disciplined members, with the discipline not of the sect or the cult but of thinking Marxists who reason and argue and democratically arrive at the conclusions they carry out. Within that framework, without which the organisation would in practice amount to very little, there has to be full democratic freedom of opinion and freedom to express that opinion and organise people to fight for it in the organisation.