For a mass socialist party, democracy is essential

beatThe way the left organises is a nonsense, argues Nick Wrack. This is an edited version of his speech at the February 9 ‘Socialist Organisation and Democracy’ event in Manchester

The nature of this onslaught against ordinary working class people, in this country and beyond, is forcing families, individuals, groups of friends – whether it is in the pub, the kitchen or around the TV when the news is on – to consider what they can do about the avalanche of attacks that is eroding everything they had come to expect in their life.

I think that is the starting point for the left, whatever tradition we come from, whether it is Marxist, socialist, anarchist, autonomist – we have a shared goal and a shared objective and that is to try and forge some kind of united response to the crisis we are facing and give people a glimpse of confidence, of hope, about how we can resist.

I work as a barrister and over the last year or so I have been lucky enough to represent students who were arrested and prosecuted for their participation in the anti-fees demonstrations of 2010. Those young people took to the streets to protest against the trebling of the fees. It reminds me of when I was a student. Having left school in Salford at the age of 18, I went to university and I got a full grant to do my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and then to see me through my professional qualifications. Five years’ tuition all paid for.

That was what my generation came to expect. And, right through the 1970s and beyond, most people thought that their children would grow up in a society where they would be better off than their parents had been; that they would not have to go through the hell, the drudgery, the hardship that their grandparents had in order to get the basic things of life.

But what we have seen over the last five or six years in particular is a situation where everything that people came to expect is being smashed up. The welfare state in this country and in all other advanced capitalist countries is being dismantled. Why? Because we are facing a crisis not just of neoliberalism, not just of the latest particular brand or variant of capitalism, but a profound crisis of the system itself. In a way the ridiculous debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband about who is going to make capitalism more humane, more decent, more responsible is a response to the questioning of that system.

Take the meat crisis – could there be a better encapsulation of what capitalism is about? They are prepared to disguise what they sell us. Personally, if I know I am buying 100% horsemeat without harmful or veterinary drugs then I am prepared to eat it. But I want to be in control of what I eat. Yet actually the adulteration of food has been at the heart of capitalism since its inception. Go back and read Upton Sinclair’s fantastic book, The jungle. Read Lenin. He wrote an article on the adulteration of the meat trade in Russia before World War I – meat that had been condemned was being passed off as fit to eat. It happens again and again because the people who run this society are not interested in the health, well-being and living standard of ordinary people, but instead with lining their own pockets and making profit.

Now for most people that is a very simple concept to comprehend. The idea that there are those who exist to make a profit and they do so at our expense is easy to grasp. According to a recent opinion poll, 60% of the population of Britain identify as working class. That is quite significant.

Huge gap

But what has been the response from the left, from working class organisations, to this crisis? There is a huge gap between the reality and the necessity. Why is it so difficult for the left, for the organised workers’ movement, to respond to this crisis and to pose an alternative? That surely is the issue we are facing.

I do not particularly want to discuss the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, or the particular ways of organising preferred by the various left groups. I think it is better to start with what we would expect – and by all means use historical examples to inform, help or guide us. That does not mean regarding such examples as some kind of biblical text, or engaging in some scholastic arguments about what Lenin really meant on this or that question.

However, I have read Lars T Lih and I think he has put the correct gloss on what Lenin and the Bolsheviks really did and what they were really trying to achieve. What they were trying to achieve was a replication in Russia of what they saw in Germany with the Social Democratic Party, which was a mass party of the working class, as the Bolsheviks were themselves to become. Many of the errors of the far left arise from a complete misconception of what the Bolsheviks were, how they organised, what they achieved. It is necessary to understand the real Bolshevik programme and, more fundamentally, bring it up to date, because we are not living in Russia in 1917 and we do not have a mass peasantry, feudal remnants and so on.

We are living in an advanced capitalist society, where people have access to Twitter, to Facebook, to all sorts of social media, where they are used to having discussions in the open. The idea that you can suppress debate and discussion, hide it, pretend it is not going on – ‘Don’t tell the children: they won’t be able to understand it; only the central committee can cope with it’ – is just complete nonsense. It never happened in the past and it should not be happening now. And it results from a false concept of how we have to change society.

So let us pose that question: who is going to change society? Is it going to be an organisation of 1,000 or 2,000 people led by a central committee? No. Is it going to be a tightly-knit party regime – what the revolutionary left generally calls ‘democratic centralism’ (although in reality it is bureaucratic centralism) – devoted to protecting its own programme and theoretical ideas from deviations, in order to justify this tight, disciplined organisation that is kept small, but pure? And then, when a revolutionary situation arises with the rising tide of working class struggle, this organisation (which may even have 10,000 members by this point) will ride the surf onto the beach, with the central committee at the front of the surfboard. It’s complete nonsense!

In order to effect the changes in society that we want, first of all we will have to win the argument with working class people. We will have to persuade them that society is profoundly broken, it cannot be made to work in their interests, it can only work in the interests of a tiny minority. I think that is an argument that is easily made, but socialist ideas, for all sorts of reasons, have been pushed back. The reformist, social democratic organisations of the working class have abandoned even the most tenuous links to the ideas of a socialist society. That is why the left finds itself marginalised, fractured, atomised. We need to find a way of overcoming that.

But who is going to change society? It is not going to be an elite, a bureaucracy or a minority of people elected into parliament. The change in society that we need has to be carried out by the majority. The majority, who collectively say, ‘We are not going to put up with the situation where our meat is adulterated, and our children are poisoned, and our kids are deprived of an education, and pensioners cannot get a decent standard of living. We’re not going to put up with any of it.’ And they understand the necessity of changing root and branch the whole way that society is organised, and that the only way this can be achieved is if they themselves actively carry out that change.

Mass party

So in my opinion the concept that seems to proliferate on the left of a minority party using the development of struggle to somehow ride to the front is completely misconceived. What we need, in my opinion, is a mass party. A mass party of the working class.

What does that mean? We need to persuade, let us say, 30 million people in Britain that an alternative to capitalism is necessary; that the alternative is socialism – the common ownership of the means of production, production for need, not for profit. But if we’re going to persuade 30 million people that they have the collective power to do that, it cannot be achieved overnight and it cannot be achieved on the basis of small revolutionary sects, even if they call themselves parties. Surely it has to be an organisation that penetrates every single aspect of working class life – politics, culture, television, media, football, chess … Those ideas have to become common currency for the bulk of people in our society, who must then be organised. Now that does not mean ‘discipline’ in the sense of ‘You must do this, you must do that’. But people acting as self-thinking socialists who organise collectively to change society, to take power.

So how do we go from today, where the left is atomised, fragmented, split, to even the beginnings of the possibility of influencing people? We need a massive army of persuaders – or advocates, as I would be described in court. In the English civil war in the 17th century the revolutionary army elected agitators who went and spoke on behalf of the ordinary soldiers about what kind of society they wanted. Cromwell said he wanted a society where only the owners of land could vote and the agitators said they wanted a society where everyone can vote. We need agitators, persuaders, activists, organising together to win other people to build that army.

The question of how you organise should flow from that. The left is obsessed with what they falsely call ‘democratic centralism’. Is that what someone who joins an organisation that aims to change the world should expect? Surely the party should anticipate that new world. The new world that we are struggling for surely is going to be democratic. It must be a democratic party, where you have the right to speak, the right to dissent, the right to publicise your own views and so on. Now, of course, we must organise around a programme, around common activity. But that does not mean that debate and discussion must be stifled, that people cannot write articles, cannot get together and discuss in the pub or on Facebook on pain of expulsion. It’s complete nonsense.

Whenever you open your newspaper you read about someone in one of the rotten, rightwing, established parties dissenting from their leadership. When Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate for the February 28 Eastleigh by-election, was asked on television what she thought of David Cameron’s position on Europe, she said, “I disagree with it.” What does she think of David Cameron on gay marriage? “I disagree with him.” So the Tories can select a representative who openly disagrees with the party leader and prime minister, but the revolutionary left tries to win people in the working class with, ‘Join us, but you’d better not say anything the leadership disagrees with’. You cannot get past the first step if you organise on that basis.

Probably most of us in the Independent Socialist Network are Marxists, but we are not in any of the organised groups precisely because we have been in such groups and don’t want experience it again. But I still work closely with people in the SWP, people in the Socialist Party, people in the Communist Party of Great Britain, people in all the other groups. I have no problem with working with those groups, so long as you can have a debate and act together. But we need a project to bring people together in an organised way around a common programme – obviously that cannot be achieved overnight: it has to be based on serious, determined discussion.

I am sure I am not the only one who has been told, ‘You talk about a communist society, where everyone collaborates and organises together. But it’s not going to happen, is it? What about human nature?’ My answer to that is that human nature is socially and historically determined and can change over time. And then they say, ‘But you communists can’t even work together in the here and now, so why is it going to happen in the future?’

That is why we have to demonstrate through our own activity and our own work that we have a sense of proportion, a sense of perspective. It is not going to happen overnight; rather it is a long-term project. But we must begin the task now.


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