Is there any place for parties in the movement?

Many people in the ASCAB and the #EndSARS movements agree with Socialist Labour on general principles. They agree that we must oppose all forms of extortion and violence by the security forces. They agree that any movement against the corrupt elite must involve the initiative, energy and imagination of millions of organised workers and their trade unions. They agree we must unite the widest forces against the government – including people from all ethnic groups. They utterly oppose both the APC and the PDP and struggle with the Peoples Alternative Politics (TPAP) Movement – -to build an alternative that could make a major impact in 2023.

But many of them don’t agree that we need to build a socialist party that seeks solidarity with strikes, rather than just winning votes in elections. One reason is that their disappointment with previous parties makes them feel that parties are not to be trusted. Instead they look to movements to change the world – where possible without clear leaders. And, in one sense, they are correct.

What sort of force brings about real change? The answer, always, is great social movements from below. Mass movements led to the independence of Nigeria in 1960 and the end of the military era in 1999.

It was Russian workers, peasants and soldiers who made the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is the same story in all subsequent popular mass protests, including the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, the Arab Spring and the recent mass movements in Algeria and Sudan.

Great social movements invent new forms of organisation – strike committees, workers’ councils, neighbourhood ‘soviets’ and the like. These develop out of the needs of the immediate struggle, but also represent in outline the beginnings of a new form of society, more democratically controlled from below.

Such bodies – just like trade unions, local ASCAB groups or civil rights activists and so on – are the building blocks of real mass movements. When they are effective they seek to include everyone involved in a specific struggle to maximise unity in action.

Central to socialism is the idea that mass movements are what change the world. We can only begin a socialist society through the transformative activity of the great majority of workers and popular classes fighting for their own demands and developing their own organisations.

By itself, however, this idea is insufficient. In the real world, actual movements are made up of all manner of tendencies and impulses. As every trade union activist knows by experience, her fellow-workers include reliable militants and would-be scabs, and a host of people in between.

We can’t understand movements unless we see them as fields of ongoing debate and argument. Those arguments are partly about what sense we make of the world, but especially about what can and should be done. Is it best to lobby the powerful, trying to persuade them to change their ways? Or should we build powerful militant movements, challenging the very right of the powerful to make decisions?

Are the issues over which we struggle separate from each other, or all they all interconnected-and if so, how? Can we learn from the mistakes and victories of movements in other countries?

Around these and many other questions, different forms of answer regularly appear. All manner of groupings emerge within movements, sometimes linked to outside bodies (parties, faiths, professions and so on), each representing a particular point of view.

Some of these proposals will derail the movement. Some demobilise its forces. Some sow division within the movement. Some seek to narrow its scope. If socialists do not organise to present their view, others will prevail. Time and again the absence of a clear socialist argument has led to terrible defeats. The leadership of the French Communist Party was able to contain and divide the movement of May 1968. Right wing mullahs were able to seize the leadership of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Supporters of Neoliberalism took control of the Government in South Africa after Apartheid. History is full of such examples.

Even with an avowedly socialist government in office, as in Chile in 1973, sharp problems arise. The army officers of the old regime remained in place, providing a base for brutal counter-revolution. Only an organised movement among workers to replace the old state machine with one directly accountable to working people could have prevented disaster.

Some people suggest that the solution is to rely on the ‘spontaneity’ of popular revolt, to sweep away all obstacles. No question, every great movement does release huge ‘spontaneous’ explosions of popular creativity and imagination. But there is spontaneity and spontaneity.

‘Spontaneously’, millions of workers continue to vote for conservative parties. Spontaneously, the struggle with employers produces not just union organisation, but also scabs. Actual movements are not ‘homogeneous’- in other words, those who make them up are not all the same, and don’t all think the same. Within and around them many organised voices compete for attention and support.

One key argument is between mass action, strikes, protests etc and negotiations or elections. As socialists, we know it is the pressure of mass action that delivers results.  The right wing and trade union leaders usually argue to stop a strike as soon as negotiations are offered – as with the NLC calling off the five day Kaduna Strike in May 2021 after only three days.  In contrast, JUSUN was correct to continue the strike of judiciary workers during negotiations and even after they had signed an agreement. We have to organise to present these arguments during every strike movement. 

The call for elections provides a similar role during mass protests and insurrections.  Workers and their allies feel strong when they are together in the streets – they loose they confidence when they stay at home during an election or if they return to work. We need to build a proper alternative for 2023 (TPAP Movement), but we also need to build for a fundamental change in the way that society is run.

Therefore, socialists need to organise themselves and seek ways to agree and present their own arguments. At the heart of those arguments, they always argue for maximum unity in action, for the greatest solidarity, for the widest internationalism, for militant self-activity by the exploited and oppressed.  Socialist Labour is seeking to build such a socialist party, but we need many more people to join us if we are to be successful.