A friend sent me a link to an article he thought was dreadful saying it might be worth me replying to. By coincidence I had looked at the site on Sunday to see the latest on what the Socialist Workers Party was saying and thought I would read one of the articles. I saw this one but thought I wouldn’t waste reading yet another article on the revolutionary party. Read one you’ve read them all.
Of course being bad isn’t necessarily a good reason to review something but I read it in my lunch break anyway.
Having done so I thought that it really is woeful and although it makes some unremarkable decent points these are put in the service of an argument so flabby it barely evokes disdain. Lots of questions are raised but only in the question-begging sense and all the real difficulties are avoided. Like when was the last time a party that could reasonably call itself revolutionary was built in Europe?
The article gives three reasons “why a revolutionary party must be built.” The first is to “bring together activists from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot, Artane and Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Sligo, Wicklow and Wexford.” The author has in mind the recent anti-water charges campaign but also recent strikes. “Without a party the tendency would be just to sit back as individuals either cursing at the TV or worse being influenced by it.”
A revolutionary party will tell workers not to trust their trade union leaders. Their activists will provide workers with good arguments against racism because they have “people who know the facts, the history and the arguments.”
Why you need a party for activists to unite, in the water charges campaign for example, is not explained. In fact pretty obviously you don’t need a party, never mind a revolutionary one, you just need a democratic campaign. Unfortunately the anti-water charges campaign never became such an organisation, which it should have been the priority of socialists to create.
Why you need a revolutionary party so you don’t sit on the couch and swear at the TV is beyond me. I recall the SWP standing one of its leading members for leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union SIPTU but his manifesto never mentioned social partnership and the policy of open collaboration of the unions with the bosses and the state. One part of history with its arguments and facts the author appears to have forgotten.
The second reason for needing a revolutionary party is that “forming a left government is, in itself, not enough.” The working class has to “move towards revolution and smashing of the capitalist state.” Were I an innocent abroad I would wonder why the SWP, as part of People before Profit, stands in elections with a programme totally devoted to winning governmental office. Because if it doesn’t the manifesto doesn’t make any sense. No mention in it of distrusting the capitalist state never mind smashing it.
The final reason is that while revolutions may break out spontaneously they don’t succeed without a revolutionary party. The author gives the example of the Irish revolutionary process between 1919 and 1923 and “the counter-revolution” that betrayed the 1916 rising. A perfect example of what is wrong with the whole article.
Between 1919 and 1923 there was no socialist revolution to betray and 1916 was no such a revolution. More facts and history misunderstood and arguments I take to task here, here, here and here. To be fair to the SWP I don’t recall reading any left wing group doing anything other than paint the 1916 rising in colours of red that it didn’t display at the time.
The reason a revolutionary party is needed in a time of revolution is apparently because the working class will not have a uniform level of political consciousness. And this is true. What we don’t get explained is how the majority of workers will develop revolutionary consciousness. It is this problem that I have been looking at in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism. And this is the real problem, given the total lack of real revolutionary challenge to capitalism for nearly a century. In some countries, including Ireland, the challenge has never occurred or even looked likely.
The real deficiency with the hastily constructed article is the avoidance of this problem coupled with a view that a revolutionary party will be built by groups like the SWP.
Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society. In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.
This is what Marx meant by “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism. It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power. Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation. This prognosis becomes ridiculous when the smallness of the organisation reveals itself clearly to be inadequate to this historic task. And the SWP author cannot help betraying this reality.
He claims that there is substantial radicalisation of the working class in Ireland North and South and that significant progress can be made in building a revolutionary party. The first slip is to fail to define ‘significant’ and the second is to assume that the SWP is that revolutionary party. The final one is the conclusion to the article where the task is reduced to recruiting individuals and having regular and interesting meetings. In between is the attempt to buttress the first claim by pointing to the anti-water charges movement and the marriage equality referendum victory in the South.
As the author says, the anti-water charges movement reflected not only anger at this measure but also at the economic crash, the bank bail-out, wage cuts, the USC, Household Charge, community cuts, health cuts, housing crisis and “everything else”. However the “water charges were a piece of pain that the working class felt it could do something about.” However if we were really approaching the creation of a mass revolutionary party then this would simply not be the case. The working class would feel it could do something about all these other injustices and would reflect its knowledge that it really did have the power to do something about all of them.
The anti-water charges campaign has led to no cumulative mass organisation of workers able to take up the other attacks. The marriage referendum involved a democratic question that did not question capitalism so why would it lead to mass socialist radicalisation? In the North the case for radicalisation rests on flimsy evidence that amounts to a few strikes, “small campaigns” and the election of two PbP candidates to the Stormont Assembly. It therefore has to ignore the failure of the strikes, the smallness of the campaigns and the continued dominance by two sectarian parties one of which has ideological views about gay rights, women’s rights and evolution that might embarrass Donald Trump.
This overestimation of the significance of current facts is testament to a small organisation that thinks it has made it big, which it has in comparison to its previous history and others on the left, but which retains a narrow view of the world that ultimately reflects its still limited position in society. The small mindedness of its politics is the failure to appreciate just how far away we are from revolution being on the agenda. A cause for despair only if you fail to appreciate the facts, fail to understand history and have no arguments as to how revolutionary politics would be relevant in a prolonged non-revolutionary situation.
The SWP author is right to note that in Ireland there is no mass social democratic or Stalinist parties. It is therefore the case that formations like the SWP/PbP and the similar Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance can potentially play a much more significant role in advancing the political organisation of the working class. However to do this they will have to discard the narrow sectarian practices of the past, and face up to the more difficult questions that they face. To do this would mean a truly revolutionary evaluation of their political history, the arguments they have unthinkingly relied upon and the real political facts of Irish society and its place in the world. This article shows how far they are from carrying out such a task out and ironically how far they are from any sort of revolutionary party.
I haven’t read the SWP article referred to – so obviously can’t comment on whether its is a reasonable explanation of the need for or a revolutionary party or a blue print for building one. Nor do I want to comment here on whether the SWP can be the nucleus of such a party. I do, however, want to comment on the core formulation upon which the Stráid Marx criticisms are based.
“Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society. In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.”………
This is effectively the perspective of Eduard Bernstein and the SPD before the First World War which was maintained by Secord International Reformist Parties (Labour) and the Stalinist Comintern. Whatever else one can say about this stagiest strategy it certainly is not a description of the Russian Revolution and it has certainly never resulted in “a political and social revolution”. The reality is that both second and third international political parties historically responded to every crisis of capitalism by accommodating to the economic and imperialist demands of national bourgeoisie.
“The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism. It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power. Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation.”
This perspective – agree with it or not – does at least fit with the experience of the Russian Revolution – to date the only socialist revolution which succeeded in taking power and holding it, for a period, in the face of massive reactionary forces. As Lenin argued it “is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph”. The Bolsheviks (SDP minority) grew from revolutionary vanguard to mass party only in the conditions of a capitalist crisis and the revolution itself. The majority of the Russian Proletariat became revolutionary and looked to the Bolsheviks not in advance of but in the process of revolution. This fitted perfectly the injunction, by Marx, that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Elsewhere he explained that “revolution is necessary… not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overturning it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
The perspective that a revolutionary challenge to Capitalism can only emerge as a result of “profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society” utterly fails to deal with the reality of capitalist crisis. Historically it has, at best only ever been the perspective of nothing more than left reformism and at worst a justification for “popular fronts” and the subservience of worker’s parties to the interests of “progressive elements” of the bourgeoisie.
You disagree with the section quoted but don’t say what it is within it that you find objectionable. You condemn it as the “perspective of Eduard Bernstein and the SPD before the First World War which was maintained by Secord International Reformist Parties (Labour) and the Stalinist Comintern” but I don’t recall any of these being in favour of overthrowing capitalism “in a political and social revolution”, which is why you need to explain what elements of the argument you disagree with. To be clear – I am firmly convinced that the destruction of the capitalist state and creation of a workers’ state is necessary to create socialism but the question is under what conditions and within what perspective is this a reasonable possibility.
In the alternative I rejected it is the workers who follow the party, which may be fine where this party is a mass party with a working class united in the desire for socialism but it is the latter condition which determines the possibility of the first i.e a revolutionary party can only arise on the mass radicalisation of the working class and it is my argument that this can only be the work of decades and rest on real material sources of social and political power which the working class is able to create. I am in the midst of arguing this in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism, which last two posts and at least the next two are about – on the role of crisis in the creation of this alternative, see here and here.
The Russian revolution is not a good model for the most advanced capitalist countries today, although it must be said that the Bolsheviks relied not just on an immense crisis but on a rather longer period of building itself within the Russian working class before World War 1, after which it suffered losses due to repression before growing again in the revolutionary crisis. Russia is not a good example because capitalism was weak, the state was an absolutist one, the working class was small and the success of the revolution was determined by the peasantry in and out of uniform. Even the Bolshevik programme was heavily determined by the demands of the peasantry. All this meant that while the overthrow of the state and capitalism was possible in Russia the creation of a healthy workers’ state and socialism was not. Lenin’s formula to which you refer allows for a revolution but as we saw in Russia it does in no way guarantee socialism coming out of it. This in fact was Lenin’s position as well since he recognized that socialism could not be built in Russia without socialist revolution in the western more advanced capitalist countries.
Getting rid of the muck of ages will not be a result of some Pauline conversion to socialism imposed by sudden crisis but such crisis will only be the occasion for successful revolution if the working class is already convinced of the need for a new socialist society. Such conviction will not be evenly embedded among the working class, many may not even be convinced of the need for destruction of the capitalist state but the working class will have to have bought in to their class taking control of society in some way. The idea that the desire for such control never mind the actual transfer can happen more or less as a result of sudden crisis is not the experience of all the failed political revolutions we have witnessed. That we have not seen such revolutions in an advanced capitalist society – since when? – should give us pause to reflect on under just what conditions will a socialist revolution take place. Nonsense about small groups recruiting individuals with interesting meetings doesn’t go anywhere near asking or answering the difficult questions.
The first thing that struck me about Molyneux’s article is that it has more to say about vegetarianism than it does about imperialism in Ireland and any understanding of the situation in the north has to begin from the fact that the imperialists scored a huge victory over a revolutionary nationalist movement. Things really do become their opposite when the organisation which was expressly set up with the purpose of the destroying the state becomes the guarantor of its survival.
The references to PBP in the six counties are incomplete. Who knows why Molyneux doesn’t refer to Eamonn Mc Cann, but an honest assessment of the PBP vote has to take into account that it overwhelmingly came from Republican areas. Brian Feeney did a good analysis of that in the Irish News, and a fair chunk of that vote came from Eirigi’s base. There are limits to economism in politics and the electoral map shows that.
Considering the depth of austerity in Ireland the levels of resistance have been low. In both states the unions and the parties have been administering social partnership very effectively. It’s simply not accurate to say that the Irish working class is combative and self-confident and the strike data reflect that.
However, the biggest weakness for me is in the conception of the party and how it’s built. No one seriously denies that PBP is absolutely hegemonised by one current. Molyneux’s article doesn’t even think that’s a point worth mentioning but it’s a big problem. Mass revolutionary parties are not built by molecular recruitment to propaganda groups operating in a front organisation they control, yet that’s essentially Molyneux’s understanding of how it should be done. He could have developed some thinking on the multi-tendency experience of Syriza, the Danish Red Green Alliance or Podemos, not from the point of view of what they got wrong but on how they built large, fairly democratic multi-tendency parties.
I agree that the author of the article John Molyneux should have dealt with the experience of Syriza, Podemos and the British Labour Party led by Corbyn etc. and the article explicitly recognises the necessity to respond to these movements, if only in order for the SWP to make a case for itself. Moyneux can’t even critique these formations because it has bought wholesale into the perspective of building broad left parties through the creation of People before Profit. It betrays a lack of confidence that the SWP feel the need to justify themselves and a loss of focus to do so by lapsing into proclaiming the achievements of PbP. It then shows the unconscious sectarianism that permeates the SWP by mentioning the above movements in relation to Ireland not by comparing PbP to them but by referencing them as missing potential competitors to PbP.
In relation to the North it is also true for you to say that the PbP vote comes from a republican constituency and in saying so this is meant to assert that this constituency remains a nationalist one and not a socialist one (whatever one thinks of the SWP’s economistic politics). The reason for this brings me back to the main point of my argument which was to emphasise the material conditions that play such a major role in determining the extent and nature of working class radicalisation that has deeper and much more powerful effects than the role of relatively small socialist organisations. The success of PbP in West Belfast and Derry reflects the protest of a republican constituency against the role of Sinn Fein which is determined by the material conditions of particular communities. Because communities are structured by sectarianism in the North of Ireland this socialist vote is not a class vote i.e. not a vote based on a class understanding of the oppression suffered or agreement to a socialist resolution to the oppression. Whatever criticisms can be levied at PbP for failing to achieve more in this regard it should be acknowledged that it faces a population that identifies itself deeply in nationalist terms and also in religious terms. Turning this population into a constituency identifying itself as working class in a political sense, as socialist, isn’t going to be done quickly.
Finally while it is again correct to note the limits of economistic socialism these limits have proved to be far beyond that of republican nationalism. As you say, the bulk of the PbP vote is a republican vote so why haven’t the republicans captured it themselves? It’s because they still haven’t developed enough politically to adequately envisage the role of electoral intervention in advancing their political aims. Only a few months ago a republican spokesperson was quoted in ‘The Irish News’ stating that republicans needed to develop a political alternative (to Sinn Fein etc). So over twenty years after the ceasefires, eighteen after the Good Friday Agreement, and nearly half a century since the emergence of the civil rights campaign republicans are thinking that they need a political alternative!