Thursday, May 21, 2020

The role of the Socialist Party

The main purpose of our organisation at the moment is to (a) argue for socialism, and (b) put up candidates to measure how many socialist voters there are.

It is NOT the party's task to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, tenants' associations or whatever, because we believe that class-conscious workers and socialists are quite capable of making decisions for themselves. The Socialist Party doesn't go around creating false hopes and false dawns at every walk-out or downing of tools but will remind workers of the reality of the class struggle and its constraints within capitalism and as a party unfortunately suffers the negative consequence of this political honesty .

The May 1942 Socialist Standard article discussed Anton Pannekoek's position on political parties:

"Anton Pannekoek, the Dutch writer on Marxism, states his position in the bluntest of terms. Writing in an American magazine, Modern Socialism, he says: 'The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working-class . . . Because a party is an organisation that aims to lead and control the workers'.
Further on, however, he qualifies this statement:
'If . . . persons with the same fundamental conceptions (regarding Socialism) unite for the discussion of practical steps and seek clarification through discussion and propagandise their conclusions, such groups might be called parties, but they would be parties in an entirely different sense from those of to-day'.
Here Pannekoek himself is not the model of clarity, but he points to a distinction which does exist"

The article went on to say that it was not parties as such that had failed, but the form all parties (save the SPGB) had taken “as groups of persons seeking power above the worker” and the Socialist Standard continued:

"Only Socialism can guarantee the conditions of a life worth living for all. Because its establishment depends upon an understanding of the necessary social changes by a majority of the population, these changes cannot be left to parties acting apart from or above the workers. The workers cannot vote for Socialism as they do for reformist parties and then go home or go to work and carry on as usual. To put the matter in this way is to show its absurdity . . . The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its fellow parties therefore reject all comparison with other political parties. We do not ask for power; we help to educate the working-class itself into taking it"

Pannekoek wished workers' political parties to be “organs of the self-enlightenment of the working class by means of which the workers find their way to freedom” and “means of propaganda and enlightenment”.

Almost exactly the role and purpose we envisaged for the Socialist Party.
Socialist consciousness involves understanding socialism which means talking about it, sharing ideas about it - in short educating ourselves and our fellow workers about it. But some detractors, have the mistaken idea that the Socialist Party thinks selling a copy of the Socialist Standard and holding meetings is the key to revolution. If that really was the case, the world would be in for a very long wait. People become socialists from their experiences; meeting socialists is part of that experience, and socialist thought is merely distilled experience from the past.

The Socialist Party has always guarded against appearing to be the sole agent of the socialist transformation. In fact, that nobody knows how revolutionary class consciousness is going to arise and the Socialist Party has the intellectual honesty to admit this.

Nobody denies that socialism will be established by the working class and that its establishment will result from an intensification/escalation of the class struggle. That follows almost by definition - obviously, if the working class are going to overthrow capitalism and capitalist class rule the class struggle is going to be stepped up. That's not the interesting question. The real question is what is it that is going to provoke the working class into intensifying/escalating the class struggle and/or acquiring socialist consciousness.

Socialist consciousness comes from life experience, but that being said, why are not more people achieving this consciousness? We probably know the answers - everything from education, prevailing and accepted customs, the prevailing capitalist ideology and cultural hegemony. We can say that socialist consciousness comes from life experience, but then that automatically implies that every worker should achieve it, it should have happened. And I see this as a problem. It leads to a belief of the old "historical inevitability" of socialism, that inevitably people will come around to becoming socialists. That would indeed leave no role for a Socialist Party. We can join a Party and then watch it all unfold before our eyes. However many have not accepted this inevitability and wonder what exactly is our role? Where do we "intervene" to raise consciousness and how do we intervene? What practical measures can we take as a Party?

Workers don’t just wake up one morning and think to themselves - "Ah that’s it! Eureka! Socialism is the answer!" This is the mechanistic theory that a socialist consciousness can somehow materialise by circumventing the realm of ideology. We come to a socialist view of the world by interacting directly or indirectly with others, exchanging ideas with them. And that is perhaps the role of the revolutionary group as being - as a catalyst in the process of changing consciousness.

Class struggle without any clear understanding of where you are going is simply committing oneself to a never-ending treadmill. This is where the Leninists and Trotskyists go wrong. They think mechanistically that a sense of revolutionary direction emerges spontaneously out of the struggle per se circumventing the realm of ideology - the need to educate - as such. It does not. The workers can never win the class struggle while it is confined simply to the level of trade union militancy; it has to be transmogrified into a socialist consciousness.Conversely, socialist consciousness cannot simply rely for its own increase on ideological persuasion; it has to link up with the practical struggle. The success of the socialist revolution would depend on the growth of socialist consciousness on a mass scale and that these changed ideas can only develop through a practical movement:

As Marx explains it
“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of man on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution. The revolution is necessary , therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew” - Feurbach and Materialist Outlook

Socialist consciousness on a wide scale is not going to emerge from mere abstract propagandising or proselytizing. All we are doing in the Socialist Party, essentially, is trying to help the emergence of majority socialist consciousness, but even if the sort of activities we engage in can't be the main thing that will bring this consciousness about, it is still, nevertheless, essential.
People can, and do, come to socialist conclusions without us, but they can come to this more quickly if they hear it from an organised group dedicated exclusively to putting over the case for socialism. We can't force or brainwash people into wanting to be free, they can only learn this from their own experience. We see majority socialist consciousness emerging from people's experiences of capitalism coupled with them hearing the case for socialism (not necessarily from us, though it would seem that we are the only group that takes doing this seriously). 
Socialist consciousness emerges through discussion and analysis. Our main task is to find better ways of expressing our message to as many workers as possible, to evolve a strategy so that we use our resources to most effect.

Some in our party have the view the problem with the Socialist Party's theory is NOT because it emphasises education but because it inadequately theorises the relationship between education and struggle/practice. For example, it has little or nothing positive to say about what workers are to do in the meantime. The Left emphasise militant class struggle but there are clear limits to what this can achieve on its own and most workers know this full well. The working class is simply the working class, a bundle of contradictions and yet a very real thing. It is both the most conservative class because they have the most to lose AND, at the same time, the most revolutionary because they have the most to gain. Marx put it as, it is a class "in itself" and not yet a class "for itself".We don't have to lead, or intervene, or integrate into it. That was the role of the social democrats and the Leninists. What we have to be is the movement (as Marx said in "The Communist Manifesto") that group which points out the way, which "pushes forward".

The question comes to making socialism an “immediacy” for the working class, something of importance and value to people's lives now, rather than a singular "end".

Socialists are not "superior to society". We understand how the class society basically works. That is the difference to the majority of the working class, which do not understand and therefore do not see the need to abolish capitalism.

We have yet to hear a convincing argument how you are supposed to become a "revolutionary" without engaging - and eventually agreeing - at some point with the IDEA of what such a revolution would entail. There is no logical imperative embedded in the material circumstances of capitalism that dictates that we must necessarily become revolutionary socialists. Our experience of these circumstances could just as easily turn us into Fascists, Tories or Nationalists. In other words, our engagement with the world around us is always mediated by the ideas we hold in our heads; we cannot apprehend this world except through these ideas .

We agree the majority will not understand socialism from the campaigning and educational effort of the Socialist Party, but from the potential effect of the social practice particularly of the class struggle.

“A period of revolution begins not because life has become physically impossible but because growing numbers of workers have their eyes suddenly opened to the fact that problems hitherto accepted as part of man’s unavoidable heritage has become capable of solution…No crisis of capitalism, however desperate it may be , can ever by itself give us socialism ” -  Will Capitalism Collapse? Socialist Standard April 1927

If we hoped to achieve Socialism ONLY by our propaganda, the outlook would indeed be bad. But it is Capitalism itself unable to solve crises, unemployment , and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars , which is digging its own grave. Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own. They are learning slowly. Our job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process” - Socialism or Chaos, Socialist Party of Australia 

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