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Why socialist organisation is necessary

The power of the capitalist class and their loyal representatives in parliament is backed up by nothing less than massive stockpiles of military hardware, an extensive and well-resourced state apparatus and the title deeds for almost every factory, office block and stretch of land within their national boundaries.

Yet despite this, our rulers do not rely solely on this economic and political dominance to ensure that the billions of workers around the world turn up to work every day and keep the system ticking over. They also rely heavily on the ideology that legitimises the status quo and their privileged position within it.

This ideology is imparted to us through many and varied means. Children are rewarded for obedience, taught to respect authority and to know their place. When they get older, school teachers enlighten them about the great and important politicians and industrialists who are supposedly responsible for all the advances of modern society, and about the futility, or worse, of efforts by individuals or political movements to seriously challenge the status quo.

Later, the inequalities of the workplace are justified as natural and a product of human nature: there will always be those at the top and those at the bottom, with individual talent the main determinant of where people end up.

Then there is the legal system, which devotes untold hours to prosecuting people over unpaid parking fines, petty theft and disorderly conduct, yet struggles to even admonish those who administer unsafe workplaces, lock up refugees or wage wars in which millions suffer and die.

And the mass media – which convey as much through the assumptions and pro-capitalist prejudices they are imbued with as they do through the purported facts they report – do their best to distract people from or legitimise the profit-driven priorities of those in charge.

All this means that the ideas that justify the status quo – that the rich are entitled to their privilege, inequality is a product of human nature and those who are particularly disadvantaged are responsible for their lot – are more or less taken for granted amongst the majority of people in society. Or as Marx put it, “the ruling ideas in any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class”.

Why then do Marxists insist that working class revolution is possible? How can those who have been socialised to accept capitalism also overthrow it?

They can because the ideology that backs up the economic dominance of the capitalist class, the legal establishment and the state apparatus is not the only factor impacting on working class consciousness. Many aspects of working class life and experience counteract and contradict the received wisdom of the capitalist system.

The high degree of cooperation between workers that is necessary for any workplace to function effectively undermines the idea that we are all individuals ready to take advantage of each other at the first opportunity, and helps to break down barriers between workers.

The shared pressures of trying to exist on a wage, while bosses and managers swan about on yachts and reward themselves with bonuses, creates a sense of class identification and resentment towards the rich as well as their loyal allies in parliament.

And the indignities and pressures in the workplace to work more for less pay give workers a common cause around which they can rally and organise.

This means that as much as there is a pressure for workers to accept the status quo, there is a countervailing pressure on them to challenge those with power, and to do so in a collective way. The result of this contradiction is that most workers have mixed ideas, some which support capitalism and others which reflect their oppressed position within it. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing from his prison cell in fascist Italy, described this phenomenon in considerable detail.

This variance of ideas within the working class is what underpins the argument for a revolutionary party. In order for workers to unite and overthrow capitalism collectively, or even to win higher wages or better conditions at work, there needs to be a high degree of class consciousness. Workers need to be aware of their power, prepared to act to exert it and steeled against those determined to undermine them.

The revolutionary party is a tool by which class consciousness can be strengthened, reactionary ideas combated and workers organised to take action. The party aims to involve and organise workers who are at the most class-conscious end of the spectrum in order to influence other workers in a left-wing, class-conscious direction.

By pooling the experiences and ideas of the more radical workers, the arguments they make about the next step in the class struggle can be clearer and more compelling, and their efforts to win these arguments with other workers better coordinated.

This is why newspapers or other types of publications have formed the core of most revolutionary organisations. They not only create a link between socialists in different locations or workplaces, but also put forward a coherent argument to other workers about what might be needed to challenge capitalism and advance the workers’ movement at any particular point in time.

Importantly, these arguments come from a revolutionary point of view. Trade union leaders or social democrats can see the need to raise class consciousness at certain times, perhaps in order to win an election or to strengthen their bargaining position with the employers, but they are only prepared to take matters so far.

Revolutionaries by contrast want to follow through to the logical conclusion of working class struggle – the overthrow of the system and its replacement by workers’ democratic control over industry and society.

For a revolution to be successful, it must involve large numbers of workers, even those who have not entirely broken with pro-capitalist ideas. Revolutionaries aim to lead these workers, not just those who are already socialists. The revolutionary party is therefore not intended to separate the more class-conscious workers from others, but is instead aimed at influencing wider layers of workers away from reactionary ideas.

So whether it’s the need for strike action, the need to show solidarity with refugees or the need to fight for equal pay for women, the arguments socialists make are informed by a hostility to every last idea and institution that supports capitalism, and a desire to convince more workers of this position. Being organised, rather than atomised as disparate individuals, makes this endeavour infinitely more effective.

Those on the other side of the class divide are acutely aware of the need for organisation. From outfits like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation right down to individual industry organisations, the bosses and their representatives in governments around the world leave nothing to chance. They attempt to mobilise the economic weight they can to assert themselves – sometimes against each other, but also in order to better wage their side of the class struggle.

They campaign against increases to the minimum wage, organise to undermine unions and strike action and lobby governments for more anti-worker employment laws. Given that our side does not have the media empires, the state schooling system or billions of dollars at our disposal, it is even more important that we get organised. The power that comes from workers’ numerical superiority vis-à-vis the ruling class, and the fact that they do all the work to keep capitalism ticking over, is meaningless without coordination and organisation in action.

Nor is it enough to be part of struggles around discrete issues without also building up an organisation for the future. Individual struggles, though important, are by their nature temporary. At some point, either demands are met or struggles are defeated. If the experience is left at that, it has only very limited value in the long run.

If instead more people through the process are won to the need to challenge all forms of injustice and oppression, the need to organise in the workplaces to change society and the need for solidarity between oppressed groups against the rich and powerful – i.e. to revolutionary politics – then it has a lasting benefit to both future struggles and to the long-term goal of overthrowing the system in its entirety.

The argument for a revolutionary party is a central one to the revolutionary Marxist movement, as central as the theory of imperialism or Marx’s critique of bourgeois economic thought. The party is a crucial weapon in the class struggle, without which revolutionaries and other working class militants are much weakened.

The existence of revolutionary parties, or the lack thereof, has been a significant factor in the victories and defeats of workers’ revolutions over the last 150 years. The part played by the Bolshevik Party in the Russian Revolution proved crucial to the success, however short-lived, of the 1917 revolution there. It also vindicated the arguments made by Lenin in the preceding decades about the need to build an organisation on the foundations of clear, revolutionary ideas.

The wave of resistance currently underway in Europe highlights the pressing need for such organisations today, and the difficulty associated with building them in the thick of struggle. Radicalisations can grip masses of people relatively quickly and unexpectedly, and they can just as easily dissipate without leadership and politics to back them up. A larger audience may be opening up for radical ideas, but without sufficient numbers of revolutionaries prepared to argue and fight, it may not be reached.

It is therefore essential to begin the task of getting organised around revolutionary ideas today if we are to make the most of the inevitable reaction against the horrors and inequalities of the capitalist system in the future, and to overthrow it for good.

This article, by Louise O’Shea, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 22, 2010 at 10:22 am

This piece appears to me as typical of undergraduate/NTEU leftism. This is what politics may look like from the Hayden-Allen building – but not in the streets of Charnwood nor at the receiving end of capitalist political economy.
All manner of socialists have been crying for more and better socialist organisations for hundreds of years – Owenites, Chartists, Levellers, OBU’s, VSP and ASP in pre-War Australia, then CPA Mk I (pre-Czechoslavakia and Khrushchev’s speech) and CPA Mk II (post Dixon) and, more recently, a thousand Trotskyite sects.
Under the influence of Habermas and Gramsci the O’Shea post aims for a party to:
“…involve and organise workers who are at the most class-conscious end of the spectrum in order to influence other workers in a left-wing, class-conscious direction.”
This leads to a fatal flaw, when this “organisation” operates as a high-flying sterile satellite and not as a organic living vanguard.
True revolutionaries, who understand the real problems – do NOT form workers organisations opposed to other workers organisations. It takes decades to learn this fundamental lesson.
The O’Shea conclusion:
“It is therefore essential to begin the task of getting organised around revolutionary ideas today if we are to make the most of the inevitable reaction against the horrors and inequalities of the capitalist system in the future, and to overthrow it for good”
needs to be clarified. Is this “organisation” a satellite, split-off from the mainstream and wallowing in gratuitous criticism of various travails others go through, or is this organisation of the working class as a whole, as provided for by the development of a vanguard?

When will the satellite come down to earth?

Comment from John Tognolini
Time December 22, 2010 at 5:40 pm

OK Chris where do you stand on Wikileaks? What do you think of Julian Assange? I hate the ALP as much as I do the Liberals/Nationals but at least their honest about kicking the crap out of working people. Unions NSW conducted a survey this year and found more Unionsts we’re going to vote in the NSW state election for the Liberals/Nationals than the ALP. And don’t talk about sterile vanguards when the ALP is really an Alternative Liberal Party full of careerists . Also I’m in Socialist Alliance and I was quite pleased with vote Socialist Party Comrade Steve Jolly in Richmond of near 10% in the Victorian election. I also agree with many parts of what John has written and don’t care that’s he in Socialist Alternative, he’s a comrade.

Comment from Mike B)
Time December 22, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Revolution is a change in the mode of production. Revolution has nothing to do with the violence or peacefulness of societal change. Revolution is not a tactic. A co:operative commonwealth (aka socialism and communism) is the strategic goal of revolutionaries in the modern age. Because we human beings make history, if we’re not class conscious enough to demand and organise: the abolition of the wage system; common ownership of the social product of labour, with production based on use (as opposed to commodity exchange), there will be no revolution. At best, those workers actively participating in the class struggle will achieve a continual leftist reform of the capitalist mode of production or perhaps another form of State capitalist production of commodities. [As Marx observes in CAPITAL Volume I, chapter one: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”] At worst, humanity will step backwards into harsher forms of dictatorship under dogmatic, sadistic rulers, out of fear of realising their own freedom and the false notion that they can best survive by embracing the authority of those they find already in established positions of political power over the majority.

Comment from Dee
Time December 22, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Seems to me John has got it pretty accurate with the evidence from my view of daily life in a large regional town in north Queensland. Then came the opinion from Chris … my eyes glazed over! Really, Chris! The view from a book and some theories and some unknown acronyms is so far removed from daily life. Do some people try to communicate in this manner?

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 22, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Dee, I am sorry if your eyes glazed over.

This is one of the problems of the sectarian left. It also indicates the low-level of effort many seem to make – it is not good enough.

The acronyms are:

OBU – One Big Union
VSP – Victorian Socialist Party
ASP – Australian Socialist Party

Don’t you know what CPA is?

I do not understand the point about being removed from daily life. That is the sort of confused comment you would get from Mark Latham or Gareth Evans or any hard core rightwing Labourite.

Anyone who tries to spread any form of allergy to books and theories has no place in the Left. I do not think this sort of winge is typical even of the sectarian lefts, who often seem obsessed with books and theories to the exclusion of real struggles.

Comment from John
Time December 22, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Chris, is there a socialist left in Labor still in existence? What does it stand for? Why haven’t I seen it proudly on any demonstrations over the years? Where is its intellectual output and activity? What are its views on all the major issues of the day? Its long term vision? Its aims and goals. You can find out all those things about Socialist Alternative by reading its website and attending its meetings and working with us in campaigns. Where is the presence of the Socialist Left today?

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 22, 2010 at 7:53 pm

John Tognolini

I do not know why various sectarians play this sort of card:

“Where do you stand on X”. In John Tognolini’s case the X is Wikileaks.

Geez, I thought the topic was “Socialist Organisation”.

But this is normal. During the moratorium, the sectarians would cry; “Where do you stand on Stalinism”.

In the peace movement – they would cry; Where do you stand on feminism.

In the anti-apartheid movement, they would cry: where do you stand on the environment.

In the environment movement they cry: where do you stand on the Accord, and so on.

So this is pretty normal I guess.

Similarly, you do not address the issue of the vanguard by saying the ALP is Alternative Liberal Party. This is sloganeering at its worse, and misses the point. No-one has claimed that the ALP is the vanguard.

Whether you are in the Socialist Alliance or voted for Adam or Zeus, is of no relevance to the question of socialist organisation – the Socialist Alliance is another satellite trying to be a vanguard, in oppositioin to other satellites trying to be vanguards.

I, at least, have a telescope with cleean lenses.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 22, 2010 at 8:04 pm

The socialist left in the ALP (in Canberra) is rather thin at the moment.

I myself on separate occasions discussed with two satellite Lefts the possibility of helping build the Left.

Oh no, they said, we couldn’t possibly do that.

Both then subsequently applied for jobs with different unions, and then changed their spots. Both came running into the ALP left, with their tails wagging.

Naturally I was not amused at such hypocrisy-in-action.

Comment from John
Time December 22, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Chris. We don’t have to ask that question because we know where the Labor Party in power stands. I think we are witnessing the final death rattle of the ALP as a party of social democracy and its move from a party that rules in the interests of all capital over sectional interests, to one that is beholden to sectional interests. Irrespective of that, it has no money to pay for substantial progressive social reforms. This is because, in part, the social surplus that used to exist is shrinking, if not disappearing. The falling and now more or less stagnant rate of profit in the developed world has produced this.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 23, 2010 at 8:03 am

That obviously is true, but, if the death rattlers are enjoying themselves then the necessary condition for a future progressive development is still that existing organisations of the working class are either expelled from the ALP or disaffiliate, plus, these same unions need to develop an alternative organisation.

Where-ever workers are at the moment, that is the best site for consciousness rising, struggle, and a real vanguard. This is the best way to respond to death rattles.

Putting all of ones eggs, in a satellite, is not sufficient – it smacks of religion. As Marx said, “Every sect is in fact religious”.

Of course capitalism rules over the majority in the ALP because it rules over the majority of Australia. Except for the WWII generation anyone growing up in the OECD West will have experienced nothing but steady improvements in living standards as black and white television was introduced, smallpox and other disease eradicated, schools, hospitals, dental and emergency services, spread, sporting facilities popping-up, and freeways, air-travel, superannuation, pensions, OHS standards were introduced and so on. For at least the last 50 years Australian households have been encumbered will all manner of labour saving devices – lawn mowers, sewing machines, refridgerators, washing machines, electric stoves, cars, colour TV, phones, computers, etc etc.

What the average worker, ALPer, and trade union organiser, does not understand, or chooses to ignore, is that these are temporary circumstances. You do not assist them by outside splinters (no matter how fine the cloth) when they need a properly organised vanguard.

Comment from Calligula
Time December 23, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Chris Warren,
All those geegaws of happy capitalist invention you mention are being sent to us at artificially deflated prices by a socialist/communist nation which is doing that for the sole reason of utterly collapsing the capitalist economies.

For all intents and purposes the battle has been fought.
We all await the endgame and what conditions they’ll accept at our surrender.

Of course nothing is inevitable.
There is one simple thing we can do to stop the takeover.
Eradicate greed.
Easy peasy.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 24, 2010 at 7:39 am

“Eradicate greed” is a slogan and I do not have a problem with natural greed.

However I do have a problem when one person satisfies their greed at the expense of another.

In general, if one’s natural instincts (whatever they are) cause no harm to others, then I see no reason to eradicate them.

People like to blame all sorts of things for the social problems they see. But as Marx and others demonstrated, the real problem occurs when one group in society exploits another. This is reflected in the political and ideological superstructure that then obtains.

Understanding this is not ‘easy peasy’.