Socialism from below
The Vietnam War radicalised me. But it wasn’t till I was at work that I met a group whose ideas of socialism from below, especially Marx’s statement to the effect that the emancipation of the working class had to be the act of the working class, made sense of the world and how to fix it.
Throughout the last 33 years I have been a member or supporter of groups standing in the International Socialist tradition, a tradition having at its core the self-emancipation of the working class as both theory and, in limited circumstances given our small size, practice, but always as the goal.
An important part of that idea of self-emancipation is the theory of state capitalism, and its coherent explanation of the degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinist state capitalism and the vindication of the theory with the economic crises of Stalinism and the overthrow of the dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the USSR.
Otherwise one has to indulge in all sorts of sophistry about the Red Army or peasant armies or intellectuals leading non-workers as the bearers of revolution. The working class as the agent of its own self-emancipation disappears from history in these wriggles around reality that much of the left indulged in and still indulge in.
In that 33 years in the tradition of socialism from below there have been many twists and turns, with splits, periods of inactivity, renewed enthusiasm.
But there has been one constant – socialism from below.
None of the state capitalist political groupings I have been a member of have managed to break out of their isolation from the working class in any meaningful way. We have remained small; sometimes less small than at other times, but always on the margins and at no stage having a moderate let alone mass membership or following in the working class.
There are a range of reasons to explain this, including the collapse of class struggle in Australia since the early 70s.
The strike figures in Australia for 2011 and previous years are at historic lows, notwithstanding minor blips in 2011. As Michael Janda put it:
When one smooths out the volatility, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) figures show industrial disputes have declined steadily and significantly since limited protected industrial action was introduced in 1993.
The typical rate of work days lost per thousand employees at the start of the 1990s was between 40 and 60, for most of the 2000s it has been under 10. For the last half-decade, generally less than five.
Comparing strike days lost now to the 1960s and 1970s shows an even bigger decline. As Jade Eckhaus writes in Socialist Alternative ‘… in the 1970s annual strike days per 1000 workers varied between 600-1200…’ Today they are less than five!
That collapse in class struggle of course is not the only explanation, but it does tell us a lot. Other factors could be organisational but one among a number of saving graces of the organisations I have been a member of has been the ability to grow or at least to retain members and continue to have an outward focus at the same time as trying to improve our theory and practice in an atmosphere of comradely debate and discussion, at least once the splits occurred.
And that essentially is the role of a propaganda group; attracting people on the basis of coherent and worked out ideas. Watering down those ideas or giving them less emphasis is in fact either abandoning the task of building a propaganda group which can intervene occasionally in struggles, or changing the nature of the propaganda group in fundamental ways.
The self emancipation of the working class and the theory of state capitalism are for me integral to our attempts to build a propaganda group and from that a revolutionary workers’ party capable ultimately of challenging for power when the mass of workers enter onto the stage of history.
They remain and will remain at the centre of my politics, my thinking and my activity.