Issue 259 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Workers' movement


Paul Foot argues that spontaneous activity is not enough--we need collective organisation

The four Bs--Blair, Brown, Blunkett and Byers
The four Bs--Blair, Brown, Blunkett and Byers

'We are many--they are few.' With that historic reminder, the poet Shelley ended his furious poem about the massacre of trade unionists at Peterloo. The line has been quoted (well, misquoted really, since Shelley, in self imposed exile in Italy, wrote, 'Ye are many--they are few') a million times since. It reminds the world's exploited masses of their numerical superiority over their exploiters. The line was written nearly 200 years ago, and its simple truth grows more obvious every day. There is still a vast--and growing--gap between the few, the secure and comfortable minority ruling the world, and the many, the hungry and insecure masses. There are still much more of the many than the few. Why hasn't that numerical superiority led automatically to the overthrow of the minority?

One answer is that the rich minority have used much of their wealth to arm themselves with mighty weaponry to protect their ill-gotten gains. But their continuing power does not depend only on force of arms. The chief reason for their ability to continue in power is their control over ideas. They control not only where and for what rewards people work, but how people think. People are not born with a set of ideas and thoughts. They grow into them. They are taught in schools and colleges, and through the mass media, such as newspapers and television. All of these are controlled in different ways, and reflect the will and purpose of the capitalist few.

These reactionary ideas continually clash with people's experience. The clash of most human beings' experience with the ideas handed down to them led to the formation of an independent labour movement, with independent labour parties, organised to challenge capitalism. This in turn led to a further ideological offensive by the ruling class on the exploitation of ideas, with the unhappy result in the western democracies that the official labour movements were shackled to the exploiters they set out to tame. The chief reason for the demise of these labour organisations is their own passivity. The instinct of labour leaders, especially at, times of crisis, is to compromise, to back off from any challenge. Terrified that they will lose their own positions as important people in society, they prefer to compromise and vacillate. They prefer the existing state of things to the unknown. They prefer passivity to activity.

One result of this approach is an ideological surrender. There was a time, for instance, when the leaders of the British Labour Party were committed to their own independent educational organisations--the Plebs League, the Workers' Educational Association, and so on. A hundred years of Labour passivity have reduced these organisations to ruins. Now the Labour leaders spend their time organising focus groups and opinion polls. The focus group organisers and the pollsters are expressly forbidden to challenge any one of the views they record. The point is to find out what people think so that policies can be devised to win their votes. This process pretends to be democratic--'it's only finding out what people think'. In fact it is the exact opposite of any genuine democracy. That depends entirely on the process of argument, of challenge and counter-challenge. Without such argument and challenge the most disgusting prejudices fester in what Marx called 'the muck of ages', and, as they fester, multiply. So the vital business of confronting capitalist and racist arguments has to be conducted outside the educational institutions and media of capitalist society. How best to ensure that?

In his last great poem, 'Samson Agonistes', John Milton, who played an active part in the English Revolution of the 1640s, asked:

    'But what more oft in nations grown corrupt,
    And by their vices brought to servitude
    Than to love bondage more than liberty--
    Bondage in ease, than strenuous liberty?'

In the triumph of Royalist counter-revolution Milton saw the dangers of political passivity, of ideological sloth. The reactionaries took advantage of that passivity and sloth to restore their tyranny. The alternative to bondage in passivity was strenuous liberty. In plain terms, this meant that if you want to change the world for the better you have to do something about it. And, as the Levellers proved in the English Revolution, you are much more likely to do something effective if you act in concert with others.

A history of strikes

In the centuries after Milton died exploitation increased, but so did the forces that can defeat exploitation. Capitalism brought the horrors of factory work, but also produced a new class, the working class, whose predominant characteristic was its power to stop exploitation by stopping working. Strikes and work-ins, however, did not come about by some magical process. They required the active and conscious participation of rebellious workers. There are times in British working class history where that spontaneous activity flowered so tempestuously that many workers became convinced that their activity on its own was enough to change the social order. In Britain these times were the Great Unrest of 1911-14, the massive wave of industrial struggle after the First World War, the General Strike of 1926, and the seemingly unstoppable wave of strikes from 1969 to 1974. In all these times there were socialists who believed that the strikes themselves would stamp out capitalism and usher in a new democratic social order controlled from below. Yet all these tidal waves of workers' protest were quite easily surfed by the capitalist rulers, who, as soon as the strikes were over, embarked on a sustained and highly organised counter-offensive. At the start of 2002 that counter-offensive is still winning.

The way the capitalists organised and coordinated their counter-offensive teaches us another lesson. Just as activity is the necessary antidote to passivity, so that activity needs to be organised on our side every bit as effectively as it is on theirs. Capitalists know that they need constantly to coordinate their efforts to achieve their ends. The way in which, for instance, Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley organised the industrial counter-attack in the 1980s, the way they picked off the weaker, less democratic unions before launching themselves, their police and their newspapers against the miners, printers and dockers, proved that for all their verbal hostility to class struggle they fight it with the most ruthless and coordinated determination.

Coordination and activity

So the second lesson we can learn from the other side is the need for coordination, for linking the different and disparate struggles of the dispossessed. This is not just a matter of strikes and solidarity with strikes. It involves coordination on every issue that constricts working people--housing, social services, discrimination of every kind, Third World debt, constant wars waged by the rich and strong against the poor and weak, and countless other issues that are all part of the grotesque fabric of capitalist society. It involves, too, linking current struggles with those that have been waged in the past. Our rulers constantly revel in their history--glorifying the 'grand old figures' of the past, pompous bores like Gladstone and imperialist fanatics like Churchill. We have a history too, a much more heroic history than theirs, and one that needs to be learned, studied and blended into the struggles of today.

How to combine activity and coordination? The question leads to the third crucial ingredient of a successful fight for a different world order--party organisation. It is a platitude, so obvious that it is embarrassing to write it down, that you can't be an effective socialist on your own. The most brilliant socialist theoretician, the most scintillating writer, the most eloquent orator, cannot achieve any real change in capitalist society unless they cooperate with others. Just as the idea of socialism envisages a society where individuals pool and share their resources, so pooling and sharing resources and abilities is crucial to the achievement of socialism. We are up against a class of enormous wealth that understands only too well how to pool its resources in the fight against anyone who threatens it. The idea that we can defeat that class by shrieking on our own, however stout our hearts of oak and steely our determination, is either absurd fantasy or hideous arrogance.

If socialists are to achieve anything, they have to come together in a party. Over the last century hundreds of thousands of socialists responded to that obvious conclusion by joining the Labour Party. A hundred years of passivity and vacillation have reached their miserable climax with the four B's - Blair, Brown, Blunkett and Byers. An effective socialist party today has to break with that tradition. The party we need cannot any longer pin its faith in reform through parliament. It has to be a revolutionary party. What does that mean? Well, we can learn a lot from the Russian Revolution, from Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party, but that was a long time ago, and most people equate Russian socialism with the horrors of Stalinism. The truth is that none of us knows exactly how a revolution is to be conducted or what it will achieve. All we know is that any socialist society thrown up by a convulsion from below is bound to be incomparably superior to the wars, poverty and exploitation handed down to us by capitalism, and that therefore as we organise against capitalism on every front we show it no quarter.

People recoil from the notion of such a party for many different reasons. Some protest about the idea of a vanguard, a party offering leadership to the working class, a notion they denounce as 'elitist'. But anyone who suggests a course of action, indeed anyone who offers an analysis of what is going on and what should go on, is by that definition elitist. Moreover, the more isolated those suggestions and analyses, the less they are debated and backed by a collective, the more elitist they become. Others protest at party discipline--'I'm not going to be pushed around by any central committee,' they proudly proclaim. This has always seemed to be the most ridiculous claim, since discipline wielded by an elected committee is what gives a socialist party its greatest strength--its ability to act together, to produce newspapers and propaganda, to organise demonstrations, combine and coordinate lots of socialists where, without the party, only a few might take part. It is precisely that discipline and that ability to act together that provides the party with its greatest asset, the self confidence of its members, a self confidence that flows from the knowledge that when we think, debate and act we do so with others inspired by the same ideas and the same objective.

In recent years, when anti-capitalist campaigning has suddenly and thrillingly become fashionable all over the world, I detect a new objection to the building of a socialist party: 'Why do I have to join a party? Why can't I just take part in campaigns, such as Globalise Resistance or the campaign against the war in Afghanistan?' To these I ask other questions. Where did those campaigns come from? How can they be sustained? For all their mass support, these campaigns and others like them did not emerge out of thin air. They required organisation--yes, leadership. And almost all the recent campaigns have at some stage or other sought out and recruited organisations and organised parties. Of the socialist parties in Britain today by far the largest, by far the most disciplined, by far the party most likely to organise wider campaigns in a non-sectarian manner, is the Socialist Workers Party, whose main (though not its only) fault is that it is not big enough.

The miners strike, 1972
The miners strike, 1972

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