The political organisation of workers is a lot weaker today than in the past. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, many trade unionists and student activists were organised in the Labor Party, or one or other Communist Party, or some other left wing party.
Today, the shift to the Right in the Labor Party has led to its emptying out by workers and young people. The collapse of Stalinist Soviet Union and Eastern European regimes led to the virtual wiping out of the Communist Parties in Australia and worldwide. Left parties like the Socialist Party are still small, albeit very active and ‘punching above their weight’ in terms of their effectiveness.
This gap in working class political representation is being exploited by the middle class Greens, who have taken up some social issues and won support amongst youth in particular.
So why is a party important to the struggle of the working class? In this article we look at the arguments in favour of a revolutionary party, the type of party the Socialist Party is (and its sister groups overseas in the Committee for a Workers’ International). By the way, the editorial in this issue takes up the parallel issue of the need for a broad mass, campaigning workers’ party. Such a mass workers’ party can bring millions of workers into the political struggle for change and this automatically has a tremendous effect on the political understanding of workers. On the other hand, as we see in this article, a revolutionary party is openly aimed at being the party of the more active and politically active sections of the working class.
The need for a revolutionary party flows from the position of the working class in capitalist society. One the one hand, the working class is the most homogeneous class in society, dragooned, disciplined and organised in factories and offices by capitalism. It is this objective position in the workplace which determines that the working class develops a collective consciousness. Workers are forced together collectively by the bosses and as a result create, as history shows, collective organisations like trade unions and mass workers’ parties.
On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie (middle class) are heterogeneous, constantly in competition with one another (eg farmers). Their upper layers tend to merge with the capitalist class, and their lower layers are threatened by monopolisation with a collapse into the working class.
Capitalists themselves are divided into finance capital, industrial capital, heavy industry, light industry etc.
However as every active trade unionist knows the working class is also divided eg between men and women, white and black, young and old, skilled and unskilled. These divisions are encouraged by the capitalists so as to divide and conquer, as seen during the Tampa incident in 2002.
The role of the revolutionary party is to overcome these divisions and to unite workers around a common objective – for example the struggle against capitalism, its overthrow and replacement with a socialist society. The party is not an autonomous factor in history. It depends on, and springs, from, the working class. The relationship between the party, its leadership, and the class is an important and complicated issue. Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained that: “without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or box but the steam.”
A revolutionary party does not create a revolutionary situation, the working class does this, in response to the objective conditions of the day as was seen in France 1968, Russia 1917, and Indonesia 1998. However, without a revolutionary party with sufficient support in the workers’ movement and the correct programme and willingness to go to the end, every opportunity to overthrow capitalism will be lost. That also is the brutal lesson of history.
Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done’ is the handbook on the question of a revolutionary party, notwithstanding its underestimation of the ability of workers to achieve socialist conclusions (which Lenin corrected later). The book explains that if workers restrict themselves to trade unionism they, in effective, allow the ruling class a monopoly over political debate. This will ensure the continued enslavement of the working class.
What is to be Done outlines the need for a revolutionary theory to guide the actions of the party. As Lenin put it: “those people who cannot pronounce the word ‘theoretician’ without a contemptuous grimace, who describe their genuflections to common lack of training and backwardness as a ‘sense for the realities of life’, reveal in practice a failure to understand our most imperative practical tasks”.
The million and one political challenges and organisational tasks necessary in building the party in ‘normal’ times prepares the politically active layer of the working class for times of mass movements and revolutionary situations.
The role of the party newspaper in this task was described by Lenin as: “a newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, but also a collective organiser. In this respect it can be compared to the scaffolding erected around a building in construction. It marks the contours of the structure and facilities communication between builders, permitting them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour”.
How should a revolutionary party be organised? The general principals are ‘democratic centralism’ or put differently, ‘freedom of discussion, unity of action’. Just as in a factory considering strike action, workers discuss, weigh up the pros and cons of industrial action, and then vote. If the vote is 70-30 for strike action, all workers are expected to strike, if they don’t they become scabs.
However, inside the union meetings, workers can continue to debate and argue, but to the boss they present a united front.
On the ‘democracy’ side of democratic centralism, while the party is not a debating club it must be thoroughly democratic. Without full freedom of discussion, and genuine and comradely debate, it would be incapable of correctly arming its members with an understanding of the current situation and the demands and programme necessary to intervene in the class struggle. The Bolshevik Party, for example, allowed huge freedom and debate in its ranks before, during and after the Revolution. This continued until 1921 when the Civil War forced temporary restrictions on factions, a measure gladly made permanent by Stalin when he seized power soon after.
The centralism part of democratic centralism flows from the tasks of the working class in our epoch. The ruling class has concentrated into its own hands not just the means of production (less than 300 companies dominate production, exchange and distribution throughout the planet), but also enormous means of repression, especially since September 11th.
The centralisation and concentration of capital means the overthrow of the ruling class is inconceivable without a centralised party capable of uniting the working class and acting decisively against the inevitable attempts of counter-revolution when the working class begins to change society. In unions and in the old mass parties, rank and file workers face, not democratic centralism, but bureaucratic centralism. That is bureaucratic, non-democratic decision making at the top of the organisation, yet an expectation of a centralised, loyal action by the bottom layers.
The main crisis facing the working class today in the advanced capitalist world is the lack of a strong subjective factor, the presence of strong party of workers and young people. Such a party must be capable of understanding the current situation, prepare the correct programme and policies, and act to implement that programme by challenging and taking on those who currently run and betray the workers’ movement. This is central task of the Socialist Party.
For more reading on this question read: Lenin’s What is to be Done & Trotsky’s Class, Party and Leadership
By Socialist Party reporters