The case for socialist organization

Shaun Harkin explains why Marxists, starting with Karl Marx himself, have always recognized the need for socialist organization alongside working-class self-activity.

A mass protest in New York CityA mass protest in New York City

THE CENTERPIECE of socialism for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels was their belief that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." This idea, expressed throughout their writings, broke with the then-dominant idea among communists that revolution must be the work of an enlightened conspiratorial minority.

To achieve working class self-emancipation, Marx and Engels campaigned for a mass communist workers party that would openly advocate its goals, contend ideologically with bourgeois political parties, and participate in struggles as an organic part of them, without imposing a utopian program disconnected from real-life demands.

In the past, large numbers of socialists accepted this view. But today, only a minority retains this perspective of building revolutionary organization.

Our goal is a tremendous one: a society that will eliminate inequality, alienation, racism, sexism, homophobia and more. Yet winning even small struggles today is difficult. Struggles, even mass ones involving millions of participants, are never automatically victorious. Many obstacles stand in our way, the foremost being those who rule over us and benefit immensely from the status quo.

It is precisely because victory isn't inevitable, even with a heroic and determined struggle, that the question of political organization--and what strategies, tactics and ideas it has--is so important. This is why there are debates, sometimes very intense ones, within and among organizations on the left, in social justice struggles and in the workers' movement about the best way to organize and fight. The outcome of these debates matters because they can determine what our side does and, ultimately, the difference between victory and defeat.

Joining an organization is an important decision. It certainly isn't an easy one. It involves thinking through how one's individual activity can be most effective today and how it can impact future struggles--that is, how the way we organize today is linked to the goal of working-class self-emancipation. This article will make the case for revolutionary socialist organization by looking at some historically critical working class struggles, the situation today and what we will face in the future.

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SOME ON the left deride the idea of attempting to learn from struggles of the past, because they may ultimately have failed or because what we face is supposedly so fundamentally different. But this does a disservice to those in whose footsteps we follow--people who were inspired by the same egalitarian vision that inspires us and who dedicated their lives to the struggle for human liberation.

Marxism aims to be a theory of working class revolution, a guide to action that attempts to generalize and draw upon the experience of previous working class struggles to inform strategy and tactics today. If theory is to be relevant, it must be tested in practice. Political organization, whatever form it takes, is the link between theory and practice.

Though capitalism today looks quite different from 1848, the year that the Communist Manifesto was published, the central features of the system haven't changed: the division of society into two main classes, the undemocratic rule of the minority, exploitation and oppression of the vast majority of the world's population, and utter disregard for the ecological impact of the drive for profits. Therefore, there is much to learn from the struggles of previous generations of revolutionary socialists and the most important working class revolts.

Marx and Engels, for example, revised the ideas they put forward in the Communist Manifesto in the aftermath of the 1871 Paris Commune to argue that the working class would need to overturn, rather than take control of, the machinery of the state in order to create a new society.

Nevertheless, the question of the state divided the pre-World War I socialist movement with tragic consequences. The dominant view in large socialist parties--above all, in Germany--was that working class votes could capture power in parliament, and electoral dominance would lead gradually to reforms that ended excesses of capitalism and eventually produced socialism.

Ultimately, when confronted with the start of the First World War, these reformist parties supported their own "nation state" in the war. It was left to a minority of socialists, among them Rosa Luxemburg, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci, James Connolly and Eugene Debs, to defend the Marxist commitment to internationalism and oppose imperialist war.

The period between 1916 and 1924 mark the high water mark of working class revolt and the period when the capitalist system faced its greatest challenge. In particular, the 1917 Russian Revolution spurred confidence in the possibility of workers power and inspired liberation struggles across the globe.

The Bolshevik Party in Russia was central to the revolution. It had become a vanguard organization of the most class-conscious workers, soldiers and peasants. The party became synonymous with leadership of the working class struggle and the primary instrument through which revolutionaries campaigned within the workers councils, institutions of participatory democracy, to seize control over Russian society and establish workers' power.

Learning from Lenin and the experiences of the Bolsheviks has nothing to do with ignoring changed circumstances or making a fetish out of particular texts or quotations, as some dismissively claim. To this day, after another century of industrial capitalism and many attempted revolutions, October 1917 is the only revolution where workers succeeded in establishing their rule for a number of years and attempted to construct a new society. None of the revolutions of the last century, including the 1949 Chinese revolution or the Cuban revolution of 1959, achieved what Russian workers did.

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THE SLAUGHTER of the First World War and the victory of workers' power in Russia sparked a series of revolutionary upheavals across Europe and beyond, causing the ruling classes to tremble in fear that their downfall was approaching. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote: "The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects, is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other."

In Russia, the Bolsheviks hung on, knowing that the 1917 revolution had the support of millions of people. They believed that revolution elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, could break the isolation of the Russian Revolution. However, by 1924, after a series of showdowns and failed uprisings, the German Revolution had ended in defeat. This meant that the workers' state in Russia was doomed to isolation, which created the conditions for the rise of the counter-revolution, in the form of Stalinism.

John Molyneux, editor of the Irish Marxist Review, described the significance of the defeated German Revolution in a recent article:

For a few short years, the survival of the system literally hung by a thread, and if we were to identify a single moment on which the fate of humanity hinged and when history turned, it would be the failure of the German Revolution in 1923. Obviously, there can be no certainty in such matters, but if the German Revolution had succeeded, there is an excellent chance that there would have been no Stalin, no Hitler and a fair chance that today we would be living in a socialist society.

German workers and revolutionaries fought heroically, but the opportunity to establish a second European bastion of workers' power was missed, with drastic consequences. Objective conditions were ripe, but the newly formed and inexperienced Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was unable to become the vehicle for working class leadership in the way the Bolsheviks had succeeded.

Scottish socialist Neil Davidson described the emergence of the KPD and its role in this way:

The founding of the KPD was inspired in equal parts by rage at the betrayals of a Social Democracy that had led the German working class into the disasters of war, and admiration for what the Bolsheviks had achieved in Russia. But it was born in the very course of the revolution itself. Only a handful of leaders had any serious prior experience in the movement and many of them--above all, Rosa Luxemburg--were to die at the hands of the counter-revolution before the party or the revolution was more than months old.

The neglect of socialists to build a revolutionary party prior to the outbreak of revolution was not, of course, some special failure on the part of the Germans: no one outside of Russia fully understood the need to build such a party before the October Revolution. Nevertheless, this fact meant that the KPD had to develop in conditions which called for a party already schooled in the class struggle.

In the 1930s, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote:

Political leadership in the crucial moments of historical turns can be just as decisive a factor as is the role of a central command in the critical moments of war. History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programs? Why theoretical struggles?

Though the question of the revolutionary party is often reduced to Lenin and his book What is to be Done?--and a caricatured form of the arguments in Lenin's book, too--all of his contemporaries, despite sometimes fierce disagreements, agreed on the need for a revolutionary socialist party.

That includes Luxemburg, a founding member of the KPD when it formed at the end of 1918. The KPD was modeled on the Bolsheviks. Similarly, Antonio Gramsci, a leader of the Italian Communist Party from its founding in 1919, was also inspired by the Bolsheviks--something that has been ignored by social democrats and academics who try to downplay Lenin's contribution and the importance of revolutionary organization.

Among the revolutionaries of this era, the key question revolved around what kind of revolutionary organization could best encourage, enhance and develop working class initiative and leadership, while avoiding the substitution of an organization for the struggle from below.

In Germany, for example, in the years before the First World War, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was a mass organization, but its leadership undercut workers self-activity in preference for their focus on electoralism and supposed gradual progress toward socialism. Rosa Luxemburg, in her 1906 pamphlet The Mass Strike, put forward a different goal for socialist organization to the conservative leaders of the SPD:

[T]he social democrats are called upon to assume political leadership in the midst of the revolutionary period.

To give the cue for, and the direction to, the fight; to so regulate the tactics of the political struggle in its every phase and at its every moment that the entire sum of the available power of the proletariat which is already released and active, will find expression in the battle array of the party; to see that the tactics of the social democrats are decided according to their resoluteness and acuteness and that they never fall below the level demanded by the actual relations of forces, but rather rise above it--that is the most important task of the directing body in a period of mass strikes...

A consistent, resolute, progressive tactic on the part of the social democrats produces in the masses a feeling of security, self-confidence and desire for struggle; a vacillating weak tactic, based on an underestimation of the proletariat, has a crippling and confusing effect upon the masses.

Working class self-activity isn't an argument negating the need for class leadership. Though it was impossible to know at the time, Lenin and the Bolsheviks realized a much more effective approach to encouraging workers self-activity, while simultaneously developing a working-class leadership that could give increasingly self-conscious guidance to the struggle.

This was no simple task. Lenin and others struggled to build a revolutionary socialist party in Tsarist Russia starting from the late 1890s--they faced exile, periods of intense reaction, imprisonment, constant police infiltration and illegality. The Russian revolutionaries, despite being a tiny minority at times, succeeded because they were able to win the allegiance of the most class-conscious and militant activists in the working class and to knit them together in a concrete organization.

This process took years of difficult work, including during periods that were far from revolutionary. The political consistency and persistence of the Bolsheviks throughout meant that they became an established and trusted force, whose authority grew as the class struggle in Russia intensified.

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TO MAKE the case for revolutionary organization in What Is to Be Done? Lenin encouraged his comrades to "picture to yourselves a popular uprising. Probably everyone will now agree that we must think of this and prepare for it."

In the U.S., we must imagine what our Arab Spring would look like and contemplate what it would require to end the rule of the 1 percent. Just to begin would mean workplace occupations, citywide and regional strikes, and millions of people mobilizing in towns, communities and campuses for economic and social justice demands--in short, a carnival of human resistance.

Obviously, U.S. society is not close to this level of struggle today. But we have certainly seen a glimpse of such a situation. As author Michael Yates wrote of the mass protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting, including the occupation of the state Capitol in Madison:

The Wisconsin protests reaffirmed what many Americans had forgotten or never knew; that when people come together in solidarity directed toward social justice, they are capable of great sacrifice and unrivaled joy. When there is a sense of solidarity, of hope, of dynamism, everything changes.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that spread across the U.S. in the fall of 2011 is a powerful example of how one local movement can take on a national scope--and win the sympathies of much larger numbers than the core of activists involved, who nevertheless numbered in the tens of thousands.

But we must also be clear about the obstacles to the struggle against capitalism. The ruling class' response to the Occupy movement was violent. City officials, all but a few of them Democrats, ordered police raids on Occupy encampments, with the federal Department of Homeland Security providing coordination. This repression was accompanied by a propaganda drive to demonize Occupiers--and FBI infiltration to spy on and undermine the struggle.

The U.S. has a very powerful ruling class--still the most powerful in the world. The owners of wealth in America are not of one opinion on how to best run the world. The partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans reflect some of the divisions within the ruling class about the most effective ways to organize U.S. capitalism. However, when their class dominance and interests are threatened, America's rulers will unite.

The power of the ruling class flows from its control over the means of production and the wealth we produce. That power is protected by the state--which, beyond the parliamentary democratic fa├žade, is, as Lenin described in State and Revolution, a coercive force of armed police, courts and the military. The ruling class can therefore rely on the coercive power of the state to centralize its opposition to any challenges it faces.

Our class, if we are to win, must have a means to concentrate and centralize our collective power to defeat the coercive power of the ruling classes. The working class is powerful because its labor is the source of wealth in capitalist society. But if we attack the institutions of the ruling class in a divided and haphazard way, we will be defeated. The state will not disappear--it will be ruthless in striking back. To defeat our class enemies, we can't depend on spontaneous coordination--it must be planned.

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THE COERCIVE power of the state is hidden beyond the ruling class' ability to dominate society ideologically, through a multiplicity of institutions such as the corporate media, Hollywood, education, religion and other institutions.

The vast majority of people aren't revolutionary today--they accept large parts of the ideology pumped out by the institutions of the ruling class. However, workers don't simply unquestioningly absorb ruling class ideology. Day-to-day experience clashes with ruling class ideas--that being paid a wage is a fair exchange with employers, that the government is a neutral body representing all the people, that the police are there to protect and serve.

Most people have what Antonio Gramsci described as "contradictory consciousness"--that is, a combination of ideas, some of which challenge the ruling ideology and others of which accept aspects of the system. Crucially, consciousness isn't static.

An organization of revolutionary socialists must aim, through patient discussion and participation, to win over a majority of the working class to the goal of revolution and to the need for organization. This can't happen all at once--revolutionaries must always aim to win over the people who are closest to them politically.

Following the 1905 revolution in Russia, Lenin argued that the working class was "instinctively socialist." When workers are pushed into struggle, ideas can change and sharpen dramatically, and they become more open to socialist ideas and arguments--because what socialists have to say about how to win different struggles, the way the world is organized and how to change it become increasingly relevant.

But this isn't a one-sided process. In the midst of an economic meltdown, workers can also be drawn toward right-wing ideas that scapegoat Blacks, immigrants, the LGBT community, Muslims or other groups as the source of social problems instead of the system. The struggle against these reactionary solutions is an urgent one.

The reality is that the working class is divided within itself, and a divided working class can't emancipate itself. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and national chauvinism affect working class life, though in different degrees depending on the individual.

Capitalism rules by creating material conditions that perpetuate racism and other forms of oppression. This doesn't mean that divisions within the working class cannot be challenged, but it does mean the process of breaking them down divisions is not automatic or simple. Because the development of left-wing ideas is not an inevitable process, a revolutionary socialist organization has a crucial role to play. In What Is to Be Done? Lenin described the important role socialists have to play on this score:

Why do the Russian workers still manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.? Is it because the "economic struggle" does not "stimulate" them to this, because such activity does not "promise palpable results," because it produces little that is "positive"?...

We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organize sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life.

Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc.

Lenin's point was that revolutionaries should be "tribunes of the people." A revolutionary socialist organization must actively campaign within the working class struggle against all forms of bigotry and aim to win all sections of the working class to understanding the need to fight all forms of oppression.

A socialist organization that would attempt to play down struggles against oppression because it believed that campaigning against racism, for example, would make it more difficult to forge class unity is one that performs a disservice, not only to the struggle against oppression, but to the building of a socialist movement and the overall class struggle.

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UNFORTUNATELY, THE rise of Stalinism as a result of the defeat of the Russian Revolution--and later the emergence of Stalinism's Maoist variant in China--has done tremendous damage to the meaning of socialism and especially to the concept of socialist organization.

Our vision of socialism is of a society vastly more democratic system than capitalism, not one-party state bureaucracies imposing dictates that brook no opposition. By the same token, some revolutionaries who built organizations modeled on the Stalinist system pose themselves as the "vanguard," with all the answers to every question and struggle. Genuine revolutionary organization must be capable of learning from the struggles of the working class and the oppressed.

Democracy is as crucial to a socialist organization as is unity in action. Democratic debate among those who share a firm set of principles is the only way that ideas and activities are clarified and assessed, and the only way for members to develop their ability to judge proposals and put forward arguments.

Internal democracy creates the conditions for a revolutionary organization to effectively develop strategies for the class struggle because this involves drawing upon the experience of the entire membership, not just the most experienced. The outcome of this process will be an organization more clear on its goals and what will be required of each and every member.

Leadership in the class struggle is a fact and exists in any organization, whether it is formally acknowledged or not. However, leadership isn't a static thing--we should aim to develop more and wider layers of leadership.

Participation in the class struggle is the key way that leaders are developed. But political training is also required--not like the training for a school test, but training in strategy and tactics. An organization that can serve this purpose is desperately needed. The more effective a revolutionary organization is in developing and training new leaders, the wider and more varied its initiative and leadership in the class struggle can be.

The kind of mass revolutionary organization argued for here does not exist anywhere in the world. Such a mass party of the working class will only come into being through a fusion of many forces created through years of struggle and in the midst of a wider working class upheaval.

Today, however, we can do everything we can to lay the basis for the creation of a mass organization of working-class fighters. The elements of such an organization can begin to coalesce among those drawing political lessons from the Occupy struggle, the labor battles of the Midwest, the anti-racist fight for justice for Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin, and thousands of other struggles, here and internationally.

If you agree with the ideas and the vision put forward in this article, we encourage you to join the International Socialist Organization. A larger, more rooted, more experienced and more capable revolutionary socialist organization is needed to be part of as many struggles as possible--and to meet all those who are awakening to the need for revolutionary change and dedicating themselves to the struggle for human emancipation.