The following excerpts from our recent editorial, The Politics of Prometheus, set out our theoretical understanding that socialists must seek to merge their ideas with the working-class movement in the form of a party. In this article I will seek to relate some of these theoretical points to the real-life situation facing socialists in the UK, and argue that the most pressing task is to unite and begin to form a mass socialist party.
The necessity of the Party
The party represents the single-most important institution of the socialist movement. The party exists to organise the working class in a political struggle to win the battle of democracy. It therefore exists to unify the individual struggles of sections of the working class (such as localised trade union disputes) into a strategy and programme for the working class as a whole. The party represents both a tribune of the working class in its public appearance against the capitalist state, but it also functions as a method for collective decision-making for the entirety of the class. While the party must be an independent institution of the working class, that alone is not enough. The party must also express and propagate a socialist programme.
The Merger Theory
The merger theory is a description of this model of party: it represents the unification of the workers’ movement and socialism. This does not mean that a working class party has intellectuals swooping in to impose a socialist programme upon them. The workers’ movement, in engaging the working class in struggle, raises the economic, intellectual and political power of workers, and provides the means for workers to make socialism their goal. Socialism must be inculcated from waging an active political struggle.
The left we have, and the left we need
At present, there is no party in the UK which represents “the unification of the workers’ movement and socialism”.
The largest party with any credible claim to represent the workers’ movement is the Labour Party. However, far from seeking to unify this class representation with socialist ideas, instead socialism is effectively banned within the party. Openly socialist tendencies are proscribed, while their pro-capitalist counterparts are given free reign. It should be noted that this is not in itself sufficient reason for socialists to refuse to work within the Labour Party, any more than an employer’s hostility would be a reason not to form a trade union. However we must critically analyse the organisation and its politics to work out how to relate to it.
Even the Labour left, while fond of the word “socialism” for sentimental/historical reasons, is for the most part not socialist in its politics. It is not abuse or condemnation to recognise this, but simply fact. Commitment to helping the working class does not make one’s politics socialist; nor does advocating the nationalisation of key utilities and infrastructure. Socialism is a new form of society, in which the working class overcomes its separation from the means of production and its resulting condemnation to wage slavery, and leads society in administering all of society’s resources and productive power for the satisfaction of human needs. In other words, it can only be achieved through a complete break with the capitalist system. Some on the Labour left recognise this, others do not – or at least have not yet committed to building an organisation equal to that historic task. Of course, what the Labour left typically has got right is an emphasis on closeness to the workers’ movement, although it identifies this in practice largely with the Labour Party and affiliated unions. The extent to which this represents a genuine living mass movement, rather than the shadow of a movement now passed, is debatable.
There are, on the other hand, several organisations that represent some flavour of socialist ideas. None of them have more than a thousand active members; most have more like a hundred. Their names will be more or less familiar: the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party of Britain, etc.
Unfortunately, these organisations have extremely undemocratic internal regimes, a confluence of a mistaken understanding of the left’s historical organisational practice on the one hand, and the need for militarised discipline to reproduce and sustain their group on the other. There is a practical miseducation of their activists into undemocratic norms, and to some extent an attempt to justify this with “theory”.
For all the issues with these organisations, they have continued to carry the torch of Marxist ideas even though conventional wisdom suggested the tide of history was against them. They should be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But the involvement of the existing socialist left in the building of a genuine mass socialist party will depend on these comrades carrying out a struggle for democracy, in their own organisations as well as in the wider movement, and committing to work with others to build a party rather than a sect.
There is also an inchoate social-democratic trend in British politics which, given the unattractiveness of Labour and the absence of a socialist party, sometimes finds a home in the Green Party or even its nationalist allies in Scotland and Wales. This left is cut off organisationally both from socialist ideas and the working-class movement. Hostility towards them, however, is usually based on tribal attachment to the Labour as a brand rather than any principled critique. Most within this left have not deliberately set out to oppose socialism or the working-class movement, but have found themselves outside it. With the rise of a principled socialist pole of attraction, it will not take much to draw them in, although critical discussions around a rejection of nationalism and associated separatism will be necessary.
An important factor is also the considerable number of people who were in or around the Corbyn movement between 2015 and 2019 but who are now scattered, either inactive or otherwise taking part only in trade union or protest activities.
In short, there is no socialist party in the UK. We must therefore form one. We have no shortage of potential recruits to win over.
Doing what needs to be done, or keeping busy?
Since the complete defeat of Corbynism, it is commonplace to see activists reaching out to others saying “Don’t worry – if you’re leaving the Labour Party there are still plenty of other things you can do. You can take part in protests, and support strikes, or join a renters’ union”.
This approach asks the wrong question. We should not be asking “What activity is out there that can use up an activist’s time and energy?” There will never be a shortage of such activity. We should be asking instead how we set about doing what is historically necessary – how we provide our class with the organisation, the resources and the ideas it needs to win power. What is our next step, and the next, and the one after that? Has the defeat for our movement of 2019 changed things in a fundamental way? If so, does our plan need to change? If not, then what are we waiting for?
[The party] therefore exists to unify the individual struggles of sections of the working class (such as localised trade union disputes) into a strategy and programme for the working class as a whole.
This sentence bears only a little elaboration. It is surely common sense that a socialist party as an organisation seeking to merge its politics with the whole workers’ movement will also have the effect of uniting the movement’s struggles – this is absolutely essential, both because a socialist transformation of society will require a mass democratic act of a convinced majority, but also because a key tactic of the capitalist class is to divide workers’ struggles, the better to buy off sections of the class or otherwise to demonise them in public opinion. No-one who supports a struggle of a section of the working class and genuinely wants it to succeed can in principle be against mobilising together with the whole of the working class.
It is also worth noting though that a mass socialist party would enable not only a quantitative increase in strength, but a qualitative development too. We can see the need for this, among many such examples, from the position of the Unite trade union bureaucracy in relation to workers employed in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. A socialist party would have incorporated the needs of these workers into its programme, and set about persuading them that they could just as easily be employed in jobs which were useful rather than potentially deadly to society – but that they would need to join our struggle for the socialist system that would make this possible.
Instead, in the absence of a socialist party, the “left” leadership of Unite represented their members’ demands in a sectional way – that the workers must remain employed in their current jobs, even though this posed an existential threat to the human race – and as a result, the most leftwing Labour leader in a generation gave up his lifelong opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine system. The movement lacked a strategy for socialism.
An open struggle
As we are born into a society that was created by generations now dead, so too we inherit a labour movement that we did not create. Not only must we resist the attacks of our employers and the capitalist state; we are also confronted with a Labour Party that already exists, staffed to a great extent by parliamentarians, councillors, bureaucrats and local acolytes who are firmly opposed to socialist ideas. In many cases they even harbour a vehement hatred of socialists.
This is not a cause for despair, but rather a challenge that has been set for us. If we are serious about making the working class conscious of its role in history, we have no choice but to confront and displace those who hold it back. We must be prepared to confront those who advocate the continuation of the capitalist system, and who seek to mislead the working class into the same dead-end politics, wherever they currently hold power and authority.
Every Labour parliamentarian who claims to speak on behalf of “the people in society who really need a Labour government”, while doing their utmost to resist political ideas which would help those people lift themselves out of their present misery, must be exposed. They must be challenged at every turn, such that they cannot attend a meeting without being asked why, if they represent the working class, they do not think our class is fit to run society in its own interests.
It is therefore inescapable that part of our open agitation for a socialist party must take place within the Labour Party. In place of its current formula, an alliance between liberal capitalist politicians and the leaders of the labour movement, we stand instead for the breaking of that alliance and its replacement with the unification of socialism and the labour movement. We must be as ruthless and uncompromising as the right-wing establishment was in wiping out the Corbyn movement – but this time we will fight for solid, principled politics.
The question of forming a socialist party is, at its root, a challenge to all socialists to consider whether we are serious about our politics – and whether we want the working class to take them seriously. If we believe that our ideas, in combination with the strength of the great majority, have the potential to completely transform society – eliminating want, hunger, oppression, and drudgery – then that is something which should give us the utmost confidence. Propagating our ideas should be not only our duty but our pleasure, and we should seek to build the best possible apparatus with which to do it.
The alternative, to submerge ourselves in political activity and organisations which propose only an amelioration of capitalism’s excesses – to save the NHS, to end austerity, to nationalise the railways – shows a lack of seriousness. Keeping socialist ideas to ourselves for reading groups and the initiated few will not inspire confidence in anyone.
Using our resources efficiently
There is also a very simple pragmatic argument for principled socialist unity around a common organisation and programme, which is that in a struggle waged between our class who have no means of production and our enemies who control them, we will always want for resources. We will also find ourselves systematically excluded from the arena of public debate.
Unity will allow a pooling of resources enabling collective projects of a kind which cannot be produced by fragmented organisations or individuals: chief among these must surely be a media presence to facilitate the socialist party’s role as the “tribune of the working class in its public appearance against the capitalist state”.
While there have been moves in the past ten years to form and sustain independent leftwing media in the UK, without a firm political grounding these projects are for the most part now adrift. A few talented people involved in projects like Novara Media will go on to have well-deserved careers in journalism, but the platform itself will continue to play far more of a role simply reflecting the movement back at itself, rather than campaigning to raise its political level and prepare it for the necessary tasks ahead.
At present, many socialist activists, because they are recognised for their organising talent and insight, find themselves at the head of organisations that are not socialist. Whether running trade unions, broad-left organisations such as Momentum, or campaigns such as those around climate change, their impact can be tremendous. They may, alongside their duties, win over many people to socialist ideas. However, as we put it in our editorial:
“Our class can only hope to organise itself to take power and transform society if it is conscious, from top to bottom, of the nature of the struggle in which it is engaged, of its own strengths and weaknesses, and of its strategy for victory.”
It follows from this that we do not believe that the working class can be “unconsciously communist”. Nor, stirred to action around demands for mere reforms, will working-class militants arrive at socialist ideas unless and until they are systematically persuaded of them, educated about them, and have a framework for winning others to them. Put another way, having good socialists at the head of campaigning organisations is no substitute for an organisation whose entire membership is educated about, convinced of, and campaigns for socialism; that is, a socialist party.
Working class people have a deeper innate understanding of the capitalist system than they are often given credit for; this is not the same, in theory or in practice, as an understanding of how, and with what alternative, they could replace the system. To elaborate that theory, to connect it to the everyday struggles of the workers’ movement, and to enlist workers in a struggle for their collective emancipation, is a role that can only be carried out by a socialist party of the type described above.
Challenges of our time
With the workers’ movement having suffered so many defeats throughout the long 20th century, and the very modest resurgence of a left under Corbyn having been so comprehensively smashed, it is all too easy for new projects – especially unfamiliar ones – to feel like an insurmountable challenge. The formation of a mass party, based around a socialist programme, democratically organised, steadfast in its rejection of both the state order and the miniature police-state within the labour movement, may seem like just such a far-off aspiration.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Uniting around our political perspective to form a socialist party is in fact our most indispensable task: it is the only thing which will offer a way out of isolation, a sense of purpose rather than futility, and the collective strength to face the coming struggles.