Building a mass socialist party

Building a mass socialist party

This is an edited and revised version of a talk Nick Wrack gave at a meeting of the Independent Socialist Network in January of this year.

This discussion is about building a mass socialist party. It is really trying to set out some of the arguments we come across amongst our comrades on the Marxist left and amongst socialists more generally. What ought we be doing as Marxists? What is our role; how do we approach the question of society and its government and what do we need to construct in order to engage with the problems that our class, the working class, faces?

The Independent Socialist Network brings together people from different traditions and backgrounds. We share an objective in wanting to build, or participate with others in building, a mass socialist party. As I mentioned at the conference of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition last Saturday, our bulletin is called ‘Socialism and Unity’ and that sums up what we’re about. We’re fighting for socialism and want unity of socialists to advance that idea.

We had a very interesting discussion this morning about Syriza and in the course of that we touched on the rise of Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany and other parties of the left in other European countries. In Britain there have been several different organisations that have attempted to take this step. Most recently, there are the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and Left Unity. We recognise that the Labour Party is not the vehicle with which the working class is going to change society. The Labour Party is not going to be the instrument by which capitalism is ended. We recognise that if our class, the working class, is going to get rid of capitalism it needs an instrument to do that. We say that the working class must have its own party. I suggest that the party has to have at least four essential ingredients. It has to be socialist, democratic, internationalist and mass, that is, it has to draw into its ranks a significant section of the working class.

Our ultimate goal is socialism

First of all it has to be a socialist party. There seems to be little purpose for Marxists to be building a party that does not have the objective of achieving socialism. What is the point of that? I just cannot, for the life of me, get my head round the suggestion we should be arguing for anything less. So our aim is to get a party that is committed to socialism. The ultimate objective of the party is socialism. By that I mean the ideas of communism as articulated by Marx and by Engels and by others who followed their ideas. I use the words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ interchangeably. I know some might make a distinction but I don’t.

So, our ultimate goal is a society in which capitalist class oppression has been ended. And in which exploitation, oppression, all forms of discrimination, imperialism, war, are all ended. We have a society in which there is no state. We have a society within which the resources, the wealth of society, are owned in common and managed democratically by society at large.

For that to be achieved, the working class first of all has to get rid of the capitalist system; has to get rid of the private ownership of the means of production. It has to bring about the rule by the working class and that achievement has to be an act by the working class itself. The act of changing society, that revolutionary act, that transformative act by the working class is, in a sense, the most democratic act ever in history; it is the majority class in society acting in its own interests to change society for the benefit of all humanity, now and in the future.  So, the first thing is that the party has to be socialist, needs to understand what it is about, needs to have a clear understanding of its ultimate objective and needs to try to inspire millions and millions of people about that objective. What could be more inspiring than getting rid of poverty, getting rid of oppression, getting rid of the exploitation of the vast billions on the planet? It is a goal that could mobilise millions of people and it is one that we shouldn’t shy away from.

The second requirement is that the party has to be democratic. That touches on some of the debates we’re having at the moment within Left Unity and, perhaps more particularly, within the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.  What sort of party should it be in terms of its democracy and party constitution? A party constitution can be of all sorts and still be democratic but I would argue that, first and foremost, it has to have a membership which has rights to speak, to debate, to disagree, to argue for, and vote on, their own ideas within the shared approach that I’ve just set out at the beginning of this talk.

In this talk I will skip over the third requirement and go straight to the fourth, that is that the party has to be a mass party. It must be our aim to build a mass party. We cannot achieve what I was saying is the first condition, that is, to achieve the socialist transformation of society, without a party that comprises, in my opinion, millions of people. Not small ‘revolutionary’ parties acting in their own name, their own interests, but a mass party. Because if the act of changing society is the act of the working class itself, then it can’t be achieved by an individual, an army or a generalissimo; it can’t be achieved by a small party, however good the Marxist of that small party might be. These could not carry out a democratic transformation. Therefore, socialists who want to set about constructing a new party have to have patience; they have to have a long view of history because, I believe, the construction of a mass socialist party will take quite some time. Sometimes building it might be quite slow. At other times, because of events in society, the ability to build up the party will speed up. There will be events that will raise questions to which people will want answers and if the party is capable of giving answers to those questions then it will draw larger numbers of people to it. It will be a process of patience, of slow accumulation, of rapid accumulation and so on, by intervening in all of the struggles of the working class, whether in the workplace, in local communities, in colleges, schools or wherever they arise.

Abstract propaganda?

Now, some people think that by arguing for a party that sets its goal as being transformative of society, of ending capitalism, that somehow that is all you’re interested in; that its just abstract propaganda for some pie in the sky, never to be achieved transformation; that you are not confronting the issues now. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we want to build the sort of party I’m talking about we have to involve ourselves in all the struggles of our class; all the struggles of the youth; all of the struggles of oppressed minorities; all of the struggles against sexism and racism and other forms of discrimination; all of the struggles of the immigrant and minority communities, here and now. We have to fight for advances in working class living standards and conditions, and in our democratic rights. We participate, as socialists, in all struggles to win concessions if we can, to stop attacks that make our situation worse. But we should always try to explain the link between the attacks that we are facing now with the general struggle being waged against us by the capitalist class that is an integral aspect of the present system of organising society. We should explain that if we want to end the constant, repetitive attacks on our class, then the only way to do that is to end the system that drives those attacks, that is, we need to end capitalism.

At the moment, the calling card for most on the left, is that we are against austerity. Our fight is against austerity and all of the major parties in Britain and, for that matter, elsewhere in other parts of the world, are signed up to the austerity agenda. That means cutting wages, if they can get away with it. It means extending the working day if they can achieve that. It means eroding benefits if they can get away with it. It means privatising. It means outsourcing. It means zero-hour contracts. It means cutting central government spending on social welfare, on all those things that we have won that make our lives tolerable, like the National Health Service, care for the elderly, pensions, day centres, libraries, sports centres for young people. Austerity attacks all of those.

We, as Marxists, have a duty to explain that the austerity agenda did not just come out of nowhere; it does not come out of the blue and it is not simply a matter of an ideological attack by some people who are mean spirited. I’m sure they are mean spirited, by and large, but that’s not what makes them do it. What makes them carry out these attacks is the nature of capitalism itself and, particularly, the nature of late capitalism, capitalism now. Capitalism now is generally not producing the same rate of profit as it did in earlier periods. This drives the capitalist class to find ways of restoring the rate of profit. This means intensifying the rate of exploitation and opening up public services to the private profit-seeking sector. This determination to restore the rate of profit drives the attacks on the working class in an attempt to take back gains that have been won in the past.

We are returning, in a sense, to a more ‘normal’ form of capitalism that existed before the Second World War; a capitalism ‘red in tooth and claw’. The attacks are driven by the crisis in capitalism itself and they’re not going to go away. Now, through strong organisation, by mobilising large numbers of people, and by acts of class solidarity, our class can achieve temporary victories in the face of these attacks. We can push the ruling capitalist class back. It must be said that, if you look at Britain over the past thirty years, there have been very few occasions where we’ve achieved that. The Poll Tax campaign stands out as one of the biggest achievements but, in recent years, you’ll hard pressed to find, many examples of successful resistance to the ruling class offensive. Our class has been on the defensive for a long time, and has been taking a battering.

Temporary gains

We might achieve a reprieve but if we do then that reprieve can only be temporary because the capitalist class will be forced by the demands of the profit system to keep coming back and attacking our class because they have to make our class pay for their crisis of profitability. Our class is the sole generator of the surplus that makes their profit.

The question that we must pose to our class is why do we tolerate this? Why do we accept the perpetuation of a system in which we work but they benefit? When I say ‘we’ I’m talking about the overwhelming majority in the world. There are 6.6 billion population of whom the overwhelming number are toilers, workers or those who have to work to survive. Very, very few are those who own the means of production, who own the profit made by others. Surely, if you think about it in terms of those numbers, it would be a simple matter of turning the world upside down in a flick of a switch but, of course, it’s not that simple. The working class has the power to change society but it does not know it. It does not know how to use that power, or for what purpose.

A united party

So here in Britain, how do we go from now, where the Marxist left is small, separated and divided, to a party of many millions capable of influencing, inspiring and mobilising millions more?

I think we have to argue for unity, for a party in which Marxists with different ideas can all exist side-by-side and thrash out their differences, their disagreements, in comradely debate. It is, frankly, ridiculous, that Marxists are separated into different groups, some big, some small, when we have so much in common. And again –  something I’ve said many times in the past – many of the differences (not all) are down to tactics, down to the way ideas are phrased or posed, or down to the way we work, whether it is within the unions or elsewhere in the working class communities. Those tactical or presentational differences should not be impediments to unity. They could be overcome.

Members of the Independent Socialist Network participate in both Left Unity and in the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition and these are some of the arguments that we have to engage in with others. There are those that want to water down their Marxism, or hide it, in order to accommodate people who are not socialist. As if that’s the way to win people. We can only win others to our ideas by being patient, persuasive, and engaging openly but critically with other ideas, and by demonstrating that socialists are the most consistent fighters for working-class causes. And if we’re successful in doing that, if we’re successful in getting engaged in struggle and charting out a way forward we will persuade people. If we don’t succeed immediately, well, we’ll just have to be patient. We will work with others who do not agree with us. There is no problem in that. But we should not abandon our principles for short-term gains.

Now, in TUSC, there’s a debate that we in the ISN have raised about how it should be organised. First of all, I’d like to say that its very important and an achievement that we’ve already got something like 74 or 75 candidates for the General Elections. So, that’s a significant step forward. I think we’ll have over 100[1]. This will be a significant socialist parliamentary challenge that must lay the basis for consistent work after the election to prepare for the future. So that’s an achievement. But if, as everyone in TUSC says, we need a new party, the question is when are we going to debate that? How are we going to get that new party? How are we going to make the transition from being a federal coalition into being a party? It may be acceptable for the time being to have some kind of federal coalition, in order for people to have the time to get to know each other and so on, but you can’t build a mass party if people can’t join it. You can’t build a mass membership if there’s nothing to join. And people won’t join if, for example, a majority in the party thinks one thing, but a minority component thinks differently and has the power to veto; or if a general secretary of a union thinks differently and has the power to veto. At some stage soon, these questions have to be addressed.

The last point I want to throw out for discussion is the question of the place of trade unions in the party. It’s my view that we should not be looking to have a party that has a separate component place for the trade unions. We should be looking to recruit individual trade union members into the socialist party and building support for it in the union branches and working up through the structures as that support grows. The trade unions are a key component of the working class, organising 6.5 million workers, the advanced section being the trade union militants.  But there are also working-class people who aren’t in unions, who work in non-unionised workplaces or are retired or out of work. They need to have equal footing in the party with people who are in unions. We need to discuss these and other issues as part of the process of building the socialist party that we need.

A video of Nick’s talk (including his reply to the discussion which is not included in the article above, can be found at here.

[1] There are now over 120 TUSC parliamentary candidates in the general election to be held on 7 May 2015.

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