Movements from below can change the world. They draw their power from their capacity to mobilise large numbers of people. Movements provide most of the energy and creativity involved in great challenges to our rulers. The overthrow of capitalism will involve an immense movement from below. It will engage the self-transforming activity of millions of working people, struggling for economic, political and cultural power.
Such a movement, developing its own democratic organisations from below, will provide the first bases for a new constitution of society. Every mass movement develops its own democratic organisations from Soviets in Russia to resistance committees in Sudan over the last few years.
However there is a problem. Such movements are mixed and contradictory in their character. Great movements are not composed of people who all think and act in the same way. In reality movements are full of all manner of opposed tendencies. While some voices urge more militancy, others urge moderation. Arguments for unity contradict arguments for division. Just as new forms of struggle emerge, some voices hark back to old ways of understanding and acting.
That’s why socialists need to organise themselves into a party to argue their case within the movements. If they don’t, other tendencies or parties will prevail and hold the movement back, or lead it to defeat. But what kind of party do we need?
Most parties see social change occurring through the National Assembly. They divide their membership into two unequal parts – elected members and the rank and file. The first group does the politics, while the rest work to get them elected. At best, such parties aim for their elected members to make things slightly better for the working class through passing laws. They have a top-down view of politics. They are hierarchical and undemocratic.
For socialists, only an organised workers’ movement from below can fundamentally change the world. That project requires a very different kind of party. Its job is to encourage movements to make their own advances, to win their own power. We will do well if members are able to spearhead the movement in their own workplace and community.
The job of socialists is to intervene actively in movements and struggles, always seeking to advance working class unity, strength and understanding. We need to lead to maximise the potential and gains from any mass movement.
Socialists aim to draw all the best organisers in the trade unions, in #EndSARS, ASCAB and TPAP movement, into a shared socialist organisation. Most of the time – apart, that is, from genuinely revolutionary situations – socialist organisations draw in only a minority of those active in movements and struggles. For most people, the prospect of socialist transformation of society seems remote from the everyday world.
Socialist activity demands a level of commitment which makes participation in socialist organisations a minority activity, involving a process of self-selection among militants. That commitment only makes sense as part of a shared understanding of capitalism – as the key source of all human problems in the world, and as a form of society that will not last for ever.
Socialist activity can be understood as a mixture of two kinds of work – ‘propaganda’ and ‘agitation’. Propaganda means, in essence, explaining and discussing every kind of social and political question in socialist terms. It involves putting across quite complex ideas, and winning people to a shared socialist vision.
For socialists, questions of ‘theory’ are immensely important, for two reasons. First, most movements focus on ‘single issues’ – pay and conditions, police violence, the environment, and so on. They deal with symptoms rather than causes. Socialists need to show the interconnections between these issues and the capitalist system that breeds the problems. Second, the history of the workers’ movement and other movements is full of important lessons about defeats and victories.
How do we know that ethnic chauvinism or imperialism can damage working class organisations? How do we know the rank and file must organise independently of the union bureaucracy? How do we know that the best way to oppose police violence is to build a mass united front? The short answer is, from the experience of past movements.
If those lessons are forgotten, it is easy to repeat the mistakes of the past. One job of socialist organisation is to act like a ‘memory bank’ for working class struggle. But propaganda alone is not enough. In the end, what counts are ordinary workers’ practical experiences of organising themselves effectively, building movements, winning practical victories. The everyday struggle involves immediate, tactical questions. It involves organising, whether for strikes or community protests or mobilising for an #EndSARS demonstration. ‘Agitation’ is all of these things and more.
Propaganda and agitation alike involve active socialist intervention in and around movements. Doing that effectively requires a high level of democratic debate among socialists. The class struggle proceeds by way of twists and turns. Real movements go up and down. There are constant debates and arguments about the best way forward. Often it’s not immediately clear how we should respond to new situations that the struggle constantly throws up.
To be effective, socialists need to constantly evaluate the changing conditions, to work out how best to organise and act. We need to combine history and experience with the knowledge and ideas of those who want to build the movement.
For that we need ongoing democratic debate and discussion, where we exchange our views and experiences, and decide together what will be the best and most effective way forward.
In ‘normal’ political parties, decisions about strategy and tactics are left to a few leaders. Socialist organisation needs to involve every member in debate and decision. A socialist organisation is not really divided into ‘leaders’ and ‘rank and file’, but is made up of people who work to give a lead to the movement in their own situation – in their community, workplace or trade union branch.