A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Right of the oppressed to organise their own defence

It is a movement from below that can change the world. They draw their power from their capacity to mobilise large numbers of people. Movements provide most of the energy and creativity involved in great challenges to our rulers. The overthrow of capitalism will involve an immense movement from below. It will engage the self transforming activity of millions of working people, struggling for economic, political and cultural power. Such a movement, developing its own democratic organisations from below, will provide the first bases for a new constitution of society. However there is a problem. Such movements are mixed and contradictory in their character. Great movements are not composed of people who all think and act the same way. How simple life would be if that were the case! In reality movements are full of all manner of opposed tendencies. While some voices urge more militancy, others urge moderation. Arguments for unity battle with arguments for division. Just as new forms of struggle emerge, some voices hark back to old ways of understanding and action.

That's why revolutionary socialists need to organise themselves into a party to argue their case within movements. If they don't, other tendencies or parties will prevail-and hold the movement back, or lead it to defeat. But what kind of party? The task determines the form. Most parties see social change occurring through parliament. They divide their membership into two unequal parts-MPs and councillors, and the rank and file. The first group does the politics, while the rest work to get them elected.  At best, such parties aim to make things slightly better on behalf of the working class. They have a top-down view of politics. They are hierarchical and undemocratic. The Labour Party is typical, with the leadership regularly ignoring their own party conferences. For socialists, only an organised workers' movement from below can change the world. That project requires a very different kind of party. Its job is to encourage movements to make their own advances, to win their own power.

Revolutionary socialism involves a different conception of what politics is about. The job of socialists is to intervene actively in movements and struggles, always seeking to advance working class strength and understanding. The socialist aim is to draw all the best fighters in the unions, in the anti-war, anti-fascist and other movements, into a shared socialist organisation. Most of the time-apart, that is, from genuinely revolutionary situations-socialist organisations draw in only a minority of those active in movements and struggles. For most people, the prospect of socialist transformation of society seems remote from the everyday world. Socialist activity demands a level of commitment which makes participation in socialist organisations a minority activity, involving a process of self selection among militants. That commitment only makes sense as part of a shared understanding of capitalism-as the key source of all human problems in the world, and as a form of society that will not last for ever.

Socialist activity can be understood as a mixture of two kinds of work- "propaganda" and "agitation". Propaganda means, in essence, explaining and discussing every kind of social and political question in socialist terms. It involves putting across quite complex ideas, and winning people to a shared socialist vision. For socialists, questions of "theory" are immensely important, for two reasons. First, most movements focus on "single issues"-pay and conditions, war, anti-racism, the environment, gay rights, and so on. They deal with symptoms rather than causes. Socialists need to show the interconnections between these issues and the capitalist system that breeds the problems. Second, the history of the workers' movement and other movements is full of important lessons about defeats and victories. How do we know that racism or imperialism damage working class organisation? How do we know the rank and file must organise independently of the union bureaucracy? How do we know that the best way to oppose fascists is to build a united front? The short answer is, from the experience of past movements.

If those lessons are forgotten, it is easy to repeat the mistakes of the past. One job of socialist organisation is to act like a "memory bank" for working class struggle. But propaganda alone is not enough. In the end, what counts are ordinary workers' practical experiences of organising themselves effectively, building movements, winning practical victories. The everyday struggle involves immediate, tactical questions. It involves organising, whether for strikes or anti-fascist leafleting or mobilising an anti-war demonstration. "Agitation" is all of these things and more. Propaganda and agitation alike involve active socialist intervention in and around movements. Doing that effectively requires a high level of democratic debate among socialists. The class struggle proceeds by way of twists and turns. Real movements go up and down. There are constant debates and arguments about the best way forward. Often it's not immediately clear how we should respond to new situations that the struggle constantly throws up.

To be effective, socialists need to constantly evaluate the changing conditions, to work out how best to organise and act. For that, ongoing democratic debate, where we exchange our views and experiences, and decide together is vital. In "normal" political parties, decisions about strategy and tactics are left to a few leaders. Socialist organisation needs to involve every member in debate and decision. A socialist organisation is not divided into "leaders" and "rank and file", but is made up of people who work to give a lead in their own situation-in their anti-war group, in their workplace or union branch. Constant democratic debate is a practical necessity. But there is also the need for direction and coordination, which is what the mainstream parties miserably lacking in. In the 1840s famine struck Britain's colony in Ireland; the British government enforced the export of food from Ireland. One and a half million people died from starvation, and a million and a half emigrated. Small wonder that the question of national independence dominated Irish politics. Only after a long struggle did Ireland win independence, and then only in the South. Struggles for national independence became more important from the later 19th century.

That was when the British and other European states consolidated their empires. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, colonial regimes subordinated local people's needs to the power of the imperialist centres. The colonisers claimed their mission was "civilising". In reality they held back development and impoverished many colonial economies. India in the late 19th century suffered famines many times worse than that in Ireland. Belgium's colony in the Congo was a byword for brutality. In the 20th century anti-colonial movements really took off. Despite the brutal repression often meted out to them, the demand for independent states grew. To their immense discredit, the Labour Party backed imperialism. The first Labour minister for the colonies sent aircraft to bomb Iraqi villages. Between the wars, only the Communist Party and the Labour left supported the growing national liberation movements. The left repeated what Karl Marx said about the Irish question-no nation that oppresses another can itself be free. Lenin, writing during the First World War, fought hard for communists to support the right of nations to self determination. Such struggles, he insisted, could help to crack imperialist power.

Not until after the Second World War did national liberation movements really gain major victories. The British Empire in India ended ingloriously in 1948. In 1949 Mao's Chinese Communist Party drove out Chiang Kai-Shek's Western-backed regime - the Dutch lost Indonesia. In the 1950s many African and West Indian colonies won independence. Sometimes the struggle was fairly straightforward. Sometimes it was long lasting and bloody. In Algeria significant numbers of European colonists had taken control. It took a savage civil war to break out of the French Empire. Such "settlers" were often the worst and most racist opponents of national liberation-not just in Algeria, but in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and of course in South Africa. One reason the old empires did crumble was the changing balance of forces in world imperialism. After 1945 the US was dominant. US capital did not rely on direct colonial control to secure profits. Indeed, it wanted access to what had been Europe's colonies. In the later part of the 20th century the motive for imperialist control, and the methods used, changed.

In numbers of Latin American countries US Marines invaded to secure governments pliant to Washington's global interests (they have just been doing the same in Haiti). Vietnam had no fabulous wealth. Cold War rivalries, more than immediate economic interests, led the US to wage a bloody struggle against the national liberation movement. In two places in the world today, above all, national liberation struggles are still vital. One is Palestine, the other is Iraq. Israel has all the classic hallmarks of a settler state, dominated by the reactionary ideology of Zionism. Israel takes the largest amount of US aid. The Palestinians' liberation struggle, the intifada, has understandably become an international symbol of resistance. In Iraq, the US-led invasion and occupation are provoking a new national liberation struggle directed at freeing the country from foreign rule. These cases apart, the classic era of national liberation struggles has largely ended. The face of modern imperialism has changed. No longer do the most powerful states seek direct colonial control, with their own governors and officers in charge. Now it is the imperialism of finance that rules-through the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the "Washington Consensus".

Socialists always supported genuine national liberation movements. The workers' movement had nothing to gain from colonial oppression of others, and everything to gain from solidarity with movements against oppression across the globe. Sometimes the left made the mistake of treating national liberation movements as if they were socialist. They weren't-nor was that the reason for socialists in the imperial heartlands to support them. Those who led national liberation movements aimed to establish a state not directly controlled by a colonising power. In itself, that was a democratic advance. However, it did not make those leaders socialist. Winning national independence only cleared the decks, in a sense, for the direct class struggle. The clearest position was advanced by the early Communist International, the international organisation of socialists founded in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Socialists, it argued, following Lenin, should unconditionally support movements for national liberation. But they should not make the mistake of giving them a "communist coloration". The workers' movement must maintain its political independence from these movements' middle class leaderships. Nationalism today has less and less progressive content across the world. What's most prominent now are the common problems facing working people in "rich" and "poor" countries. In the new "globalised" world, the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre and Mumbai symbolise a new internationalist struggle against the destructive power of world capitalism. Under capitalism the working class has a great political advantage compared with all previous exploited classes. The very people whose lives are currently dominated by the fact that they produce the wealth and power of capitalism are the key to its transformation.

Capitalism, for its own purposes, has concentrated workers together in great cities and towns. It has forced them together into factories and offices. And it has educated workers far beyond the average level of culture even of previous ruling classes. As a result, it has made the modern working class a force that can organise itself quite easily into unions, parties, co-operatives, and other bodies and networks. Never has any exploited class in history had such a capacity to take over and run society. The very people whose lives are currently dominated by the fact that they produce the wealth and power of capitalism are the key to its transformation. Socialism involves the great majority seizing back, under their own control, the wealth they already produce. No vision of "socialism" is worth a bean if it leaves out the working class, actively organising itself, taking control of the means of production from the capitalist class and setting out to remake society on the basis of real human need.

The road to socialism and the goal of socialism are inextricably linked. We utterly oppose all those "top-down" accounts of the way to achieve socialism that suppose that some small group of clever people-intellectuals, party leaders, MPs, guerrilla army leaders, etc-can emancipate humanity from capitalism. Socialism cannot be achieved by acts of parliament or any kind of dictatorship or minority action. For this reason the Socialist Workers Party has always opposed the traditions of social democracy (embodied in Britain by those who talked of the Labour Party bringing socialism through parliament) and Stalinism alike. Both involve the politics of "socialism from above". Socialism is only possible when millions upon millions of ordinary working people - women and men, black and white, gay and straight - organise themselves democratically "from below" and set out to take all forms of decision-making power away from the minorities who rule us today, and to impose their own collective power over every aspect of social and productive life.

The founding principle of a socialist society is the most extensive democracy, going far beyond the limited principles of "parliamentary democracy" today. In order to secure and extend its rule the working class needs the active involvement of the masses of people who are currently excluded from decisions about the matters that shape their own lives. Capitalism has a combination of two drives, both of which are direct obstacles to democratic popular control over social, economic and political life. The first is exploitation. The second is competition. Exploitation - the extraction of surpluses from the labour of the majority by a minority - necessarily rests on hierarchy and lack of democracy. To maintain the flow of profits to a few, the social power of private and state property over us is upheld by whole armies of supervisors, foremen, managers, police, jailers and (ultimately) soldiers. Replacing production for profit with production aimed directly at satisfying human need means breaking these hierarchies and substituting direct democratic control over society's means of production.

Capitalism, though, is not only marked by class exploitation. Its other core feature is "the market" and the necessity of competition between rival companies and states. Indeed, that competition compels the capitalist class to seek, constantly, to step up the rate of exploitation and to devise ever new methods of keeping control over labour. Competition drives capitalists to accumulate, to exploit. Competition and the market also produce a world that nobody controls that develops through convulsive crises. Private profit dominates, and general interests take a back seat - as a result the capitalist class has no effective answer to ecological threats like global warming. Capitalist production, driven by competitive accumulation, rips the heart out of established communities, and today threatens the very existence of life on the planet. It prevents the rational collective harbouring and development of resources. The sole practical alternative to the anarchy and destructiveness of capitalist competition and exploitation is the development and extension of cooperative and democratic planning.

How, in the end, can human needs and wants be decided unless human beings themselves choose - democratically - what their needs and wants are and where their priorities lie? How else can plans be sensibly evaluated and changed unless the majority can engage in debate and decide how to alter things? Such a world only becomes possible when workers organise themselves to take that world back from their ruling exploiters and place it under their own collective power. Workers create all the wealth, but none of the power and certainly not the wealth big business bosses - it's time to change that for the better. At the heart of capitalism is an ongoing class struggle between capital and labour. That is the ABC of Marxism. But the alphabet has more than three letters. Class domination in capitalism is interwoven with many other sorts of human oppression. These provide a basis for divisions among the exploited. Disadvantaged groups have been held down on the grounds of being "different", and they in turn have fought back. There is no difference in principle here with the debates we have in unions about how best to fight the bosses. In both cases we start with solidarity, and participate in debates about strategy and tactics.

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