Thursday 2 July 2009

Socialist Activism and Responsibility

At the moment I'm still working on the penultimate chapter of my PhD. The thesis is, among other things, looking at how a sample of activists from the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party got involved and remained committed in what were tough times for socialist politics. That's not to say things now aren't difficult, but there are certainly more openings for our activism today than was the case for most of the 90s and a good chunk of this decade. I digress.

I thought I would share this short extract from an interview with one of my SP comrades. I asked what it meant to him to be a socialist and a member of our party, and I think his reply is possibly the best answer to the question I received. It might be of interest to readers:
I heard this question earlier on and I still haven’t prepared myself for it. Two different questions. What it is to be a socialist – I don’t think there’s an answer to it because often socialists come from different backgrounds and can have very different ideas and methods, principles, and come to them from very different places, so I’m not going to answer that. To me what it means to be a socialist ... it’s a difficult question to answer. It’s about not giving an inch. First and foremost not letting anyone else dictate where your life goes. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself. It’s about not letting yourself be exploited or being taken advantage of. About sticking two fingers up to the man, it’s about taking responsibility for your own life, where it’s going and not letting anyone get in your way or dictate where you’re going to end up ...
Whenever I hear quotes is something that brings to mind something said by Trotsky, which said “every revolutionist is a soldier in the proletarian army” Every time I read that I smirk. It’s about the place you have in the movement and the class struggle, and I think my place will change year in, year out. At the moment I seem to have designs on being the young, sharp Bolshevik who tells everyone else where they’re going wrong, but I’m sure that will evolve and change as I evolve and change. The reason why I’m not a soldier in the proletarian army … you know those guys who work for noodle houses, who stand in the street pointing signs in the direction of the nearest one, that’s me. My sign says ‘socialism: this way'. Being a SP member for me is quite similar to my first answer, the difference is being a SP member means taking responsibility for the party. I know it’s been a red thread through this interview. It’s every member’s responsibility to build the party, maintain the party, to recruit, educate and integrate new people, and most importantly at the moment, to develop themselves so all these things can be best achieved. Comrades who don’t so that, and so-called socialists and Marxists who don’t take any responsibility for the party have no grounds to dictate to the party how it should be built, or how things should be done differently. If every young comrade in the organisation develops themselves into an organiser, a cadre within the next year, we would double at least the number of capable, grass roots organisers. The number one attribute of being a party member is responsibility.


Organized Rage. said...

"It’s every member’s responsibility to build the party, maintain the party, to recruit, educate and integrate new people."


This comment is very blunt, but some times in politics it is necessary to be so and it is how I feel.
When I write 'you', I mean SP members.

I find the statement above appalling in the current context, although it does highlight the main reason why the English left has been unable to build a party to the left of Labour and why every attempt has been sabotaged by comrades like you who genuinely believe they already belong to 'the party'.

Thus whenever we get at the starting gate on the road to build a new left party, you insist on some sort of federated set up which allows you to maintain what you call 'the Party.' whilst masquerading as advocates for a democratic left party alternative. In other words you want your cake and to eat it.{or whatever the bloody saying is}

Instead of merging your own organization within the new party, you continue to recruit to it and scheme and plot against your opponents within the new party. Indeed as your write above you see recruiting to the SP as a duty. Think about this in practice, if a new Left party got off the ground you would attempt to recruit its members for another party, which at some later date may stand against it.

This is not pie in the sky, as you had a history of doing this within the SA. Thus if for some unforeseen reason, all this plotting and scheming does not work as planed; and the new party goes in a direction with which you disagree, your members would be issued with an order to up sticks and go.

In politics it is simply not possible to ride two horses at once successfully, the only way a political party can prosper is for it to work on the bases of one party one membership. Much like your own 'party' does, unless comrades get special permission, etc. Surely what is good enough for the SP should be good enough for a new Left Party?

I guarantee if this rule was laid down by any new Left Party you, [again, by you I mean the members of the SP] would refuse to join which speaks volumes about what motivates you.

Apologies for bluntness but i am interested how you can justify the above quote, when working for a New Left Party. Perhaps I am being stupid?

Dave Riley said...

I actually disagree with this perspective. I know it's the comrade's but i think is about being a SP member but not a socialist because it so sharply defines his political struggle within the narrow confines of the SP shadow. While I recognise absolutely that party membership is all those things: recruiting, education (& self education), leading ..and most definitely about taking responsibility, I also believe that Lenin had the full marker when he wrote about An Essential Condition of the Bolsheviks’ Success:"The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct. Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish disciplsaine inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement."
Lenin's also asking how does one stay an activist, stay a Marxist revolutionary, and all the rest that make up the cadre life style. The problem is that if these conditions he defines are not met or at least strived for then even any party member, any individual socialist, no matter how seemingly dedicated lives a warped existence that can be rationalised any way they choose to. Our problem as socialists, as party members is that we cannot switch on a "close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement."
But to not see how much we live an enforced marginalisation and not strenuously seek ways and means to overcome it is to leave ourselves open to "phrasemonging and clowning".

ModernityBlog said...

Not wishing to pour cold water on things, but surely 40 years of the New Left's lack of success in Britain should sugest that quoting Lenin/Trotsky for modern occasions doesn't actually work, hasn't actually worked, and really, really is rather conservative in thinking?

Constantly returning to old tombs to seek inspiration is a rather backward way of looking at things.

just a thought :)

Organized Rage. said...


You make some interesting points, I have a question? who gets to decide the make up of the proletarian vanguard which you mentioned,

I presume Lenin saw this vanguard as himself and his close Party associates, incidentally they proved far from infallible, as some of them fell asleep and almost sabotaged the October revolution.

The danger of this vanguard theory was set out
perfectly by Rosa Luxemburg and proved to be correct in my view, first you have the most able heads in central committee, then a smaller number of tops emerge who are more able politicians or represent a sizable section of the State and party machine, then the most brutal etc, etc.{rough explanation}

It seems a recipe for disaster and so it has proved historically. If we on the left cannot come up with ways to extend the democratic space, we might as well pack it in.

In my humble opinion, workers are not going to support in any great numbers a party that offers them less freedoms than they now have in a bourgeois democracy and I make them spot on.

Dave Riley said...

Re Mick Halls' question:
Lenin mentioned the vanguard, not I in my comment. But I do believe in "the vanguard theory" but not any vanguard that is self appointed. I think that's
 banana oil politics and Phil's vox pop comrade falls into that trap completely . Being "the vanguard" is something you have to earn and it cannot be obtained by generating what is assumed to be the very best of all political programs or simply by doing propaganda. That's idealist bullshit and the far left suffer from that disease big time.

You're right to emphasize the crucial role of democracy. In that regard the new democracy movements in Latin America --such as in Venezuela -- are excellent examples of  how masses of people are given the responsibility to decide what is to be done --and no "self appointed vanguard" does it for them. But, you see, even there an identifiable "vanguard" exists in the form of Hugo Chavez and the amalgam now coming together under the PSUV. Any process has to be led and Lenin's concept of leadership  is the best exploration  we've got about  forging the sort of leaderships we need to foster. But that leadership is broader and bigger than any one Marxist party -- today or any day. To not recognize that is to not understand Lenin and to assume that the finished product -- his Bolshevik party crica 1917 -- attained its leadership role by dint of some magical template rather than through the very hard yakker my quote explores:" theclosest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with thebroadest masses of the working people.."

Instead these parties which presume to follow Lenin's core concepts rely on  a sort of primitive accumulation of cadre approach which  , I'm sorry to have to  inform them, is foreign to Lenin's party building strategy.

In practical terms here in Australia our challenge is to deploy a Socialist Alliance as such a regroupment  vehicle  and the DSP here has  just made a major commitment to that project. In France the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, is a similar , and much more succesful, example of practical Leninism .

journeyman said...


As a SP/Militant member for 25years+ (!!!) I feel compelled to throw something in here.

I really like the comrade's description of 'what it is to be a socialist'. It's personal and emotional but it sums up pretty well the self-emancipating act of working out what is going on in the world around you and where you can fit into changing it.

I'm not so keen on the 'what it means to be a member of our party'.

The answer is full of quotes; 'proletarian army', 'red thread', 'red thread, 'cadre' etc. To me that's rather lazy thinking and opens us up to accusations of crass vanguard-ism as seen in the above comments.

Don't get me wrong, I think the Bolshevik tradition is hugely important and I have the bookshelves to prove it but every generation needs to study the past in the context of the present and express their conclusions in the language of our times.

I think being a member of our party means having, at this point in history the best (but not infallible) theoretical framework for understanding as a class where we came from, where we are and where we are going. And providing the best organisational focus for working class activists. As simple as that - everything else flows from this.

I don't think the comrade interviewed meant his comments to sound like 'party patriotism' - at least I hope not. His language is understandably that of an insider's shorthand - but as with any jargon, there is a danger that it can seem to much like some sort of a cult to outsiders.

I'd also like to respond to the comments about liquidationism and the United Front (there's some jargon for you !) - but maybe another day.



Organized Rage. said...


Thanks for your reply, it is one of the best explanations of what is meant by a vanguard, etc, that I have read.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing that brings the words "phrasemonging and clowning" to mind more than the Australian DSP!

This is a party that pretends to be building a "Socialist Alliance regroupment vehicle" but the reality is very very different.

They have driven away every single other left group in Australia and split their own party down the middle.

No one on the Australian left will work with them, their youth group has vanished and they lost most of their cadre in a bitter split.

Your doing great work over there sideshow Dave, thanks for your words of wisdom...

Jon said...

Mick Hall's first comment is 100% correct. I would only like add that 'riding two horses at once' was precisely what led to the breakup of Respect. The SWP saw Respect as primarily a way to recruit to the SWP, and so were initially happy to allow some dodgy policies (e.g. on gay rights) against the wishes of independent lefts who were interested in Respect as a party in itself. This was acceptable to the SWP because Respect's policies were seen as separate to the SWP's policies.

The decision to split from Respect was a practical one, almost a business decision- they weren't getting as much out of Respect (in terms of influence and recruitment) as they were putting into it (in terms of money and activist time.) The justification for leaving (the 'witch hunt') was invented by the SWP leadership primarily to ensure that as many SWP members as possible sided with them rather than the rest of Respect.

The crucial point here is that the SWP were able to split because they had not integrated deeply into Respect and had their own party infrastructure to go back to. A united left party will not be possible unless the existing left parties (including the SP) agree to merge their infrastructure into one party and commit to it 100%. I am doubtful this will ever happen, and now believe a new left party can only be initiated by a force outside of the existing left parties, such as a group of trade unionists. What the SP, SWP and Respect decide to do then is another matter.

Dave Riley said...

I don't mean to make light of the practical challenges involved in "merging" formations but really the main game isn't that . The main game is to get it into your/our heads that this is the best, indeed the only, way to proceed if mass workers parties are to be created. It takes a conscious commitment and issues of this and that -- including differences over programatic questions -- are secondary.You work together as often and as collectively as you can with the perspective of building a new party and not of not building it which was the SWP's line on Respect. You deal with differences as they arise in the concrete business of collective struggle.

The recent turn by the DSP towards the Socialist Alliance
here is not premised by practical hassles for the moment over assets -- but the DSP has found through 8 years of engagement with this project that it is very difficult, nigh impossible, to actively build two parties at the same time and you either go back to the same ole same ole or you move forward. Whether the DSP replicates the approach of the LCR with the NPA or that of the Scottish section of the Socialist Party in regard to the SSP remains to be seen because this has to be a democratic process.

Read rest of comment...

Organized Rage. said...

I am mindful that no member of the SP has answered my main critism about the impossibility of riding two horses successfully and Jon's comments about what occurred within Respect makes me determined to pursue this.

Perhaps it might help if I concede my post may have seemed overcritical of the SP, and that was not my intention as this problem concerns most 'Leninist' groups.

I also highly respect the work hundreds of SP members carry out in the labour movement. I am also mindful they may not wish in the short term to dissolve their party for a will in the wisp,

But surly that could be overcome by proceeding cautiously with any new Left Party, first an electoral alliance and only when that solidifies moving forward to found a new party.

As members of the SP cannot belong to two parties unless they get dispensation, why do they demand this right when they join a new left party?

The only logical reason is because they have no intention of ever dissolving the SP, which they believe is already the vanguard party. If this is true then Jon is correct when he implies the Leninist groups are part of the problem, which if one takes into account their steadfastness, is a shame.

ModernityBlog said...

Just a quick comment on Respect.

That breakup was almost guaranteed from the outset, putting dodgy people in the leadership (Galloway, Yvonne Ridley, etc,) using the lowest common denominator, encouraging communalism, etc

It was bound to fail.

The larger question is, why do these would-be 'Leninists' seem to think they are like the Enron executives (The Smartest Guys in the Room) with their continual failures?

40 years of mischances, using ex-student politics techniques to create organizations, vanity projects, flash in the pans, etc

And no one will admit the bleeding obvious, it does not work.

Then of course, there was missed opportunity of the anti-war movement, yet another fuck up.

Anna Chen deals with the latter rather well,

ModernityBlog said...

ops, that link doesn't work, try

Dave said...

Do you think this contribution differs materially from what an SWPer might have said?

Why does it seem so striking to you, Phil?

Leftwing Criminologist said...

On the theme of building a new mass left/workers party

I think there are two seperate issues that need to be discussed

One is the question of unity between existing left organisations now i'm not going to go over the history of british attempts at this, but to my mind one of the most important lessons is that you can't paper up over differences.
Each organisation has its own ideas, history and experiences and thus has its own spin on things which require in articulating that its own seperate voice and thus organisation.
For those groups to fuse there has of necessity to be a period of working together of collaborating on issues and discussing their own differences
Now this would probably lead to the production of joint material on issues which to my mind is a step towards a joint organisation when these organisations agree (better a long period to develop a lasting fusion than a short period leading to a split in my opinion)

The other issue is that of drawing working class to socialist politics. Now obviously, various already existing groups, be it parties, community campaigns etc bring people in, but on a national scale not enough new people will be brought in to counterbalance the already existing parties from a few odd groups - what is needed is a much bigger group either coming from a wave of radicalisation and action or from a large body such as a trade union (which can have similar problems of dominance by one organisation though)

Now obviously both these trends can influence one another - one is more likely to occur if the other takes place i think but there are difference between the processes involved with both.

on the whole vanguard thing - i agree that you have to earn the status of vanguard - it is proved through actions not declarations
however, the success of those actions depends on ideas and understanding and i don;t have problems with organisations defending their own ideas because they believe that they will be the ideas that a vanguard adopts

Dave Riley said...

I do sincerely apologise for the way I do go on but I value the sort of polemical engagement trying to explain my POV to others offers me. I have great respect for the work the SP does and the sort of tactical hardware that may exist within the CWI internationally ...But as the most recent post here -- on the SP NC -- points out the SP has yet to attain a threshold of 2,000 members. And this is in a country of 63 million people.

Of course I can do the sums here for Australia and familiar with the figures for all tendencies including the Labor Party as well as historical figures such as for the Australian Communist Party in its halcyon days. And I'm telling you that if you survive at such low numbers then surviving is what you'll strive to do as it becomes a self fulfilling cycle of maintaining revolutionary continuity and the idealist Trotskyist assumption than propaganda is a more potent tool than it is.

Similarly if the SP/Militant, to its credit, recruited 500 miners during the 80s coal strike -- where are they now? I'm not being disparaging, as I share the exact same experiences, but there's surely something wrong in the mix when a party which sets out to change the world cannot retain working class militants. I know what the cadre regime is like but also, and lets' be very frank in respect to the comrade's interview, it is so friggin wastely of labour. As Lenin said, the revolution is a great consumer of men (sic).
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ModernityBlog said...

just taking the Leftwing Criminologist's latter point, "i agree that you have to earn the status of vanguard"

So when it did that happen? Since 1968, over 40 years of the New British Left's endevours have gone on, and they failed, time after time, vanguard after vanguard.

If you wanted to design a worse organisational model you'd be hard put to find one, vanguardism encourages some people to think they are smart, able and REAL political leaders, yet it only distances them from reality (see Scotland) and brings out their failings.

So here's a question, where in the past 40 (FORTY) years has vanguardism been shown to work and by work I mean, build up a group into the 10s of 1,000, not 3 men and a dog?

Where has it really worked recently?

Dave Riley said...

I think Leftwing Criminologist is a little schematic simply because the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.However it is this comment I want to teke up:"Now obviously, various already existing groups, be it parties, community campaigns etc bring people in, but on a national scale not enough new people will be brought in to counterbalance the already existing parties from a few odd groups - what is needed is a much bigger group either coming from a wave of radicalisation and action or from a large body such as a trade union (which can have similar problems of dominance by one organisation though)"

This is exactly how the left orgs tripped themselves up here. They thought they owned the Alliance despite the fact the majority of the Scoialist Alliance members were non aligned, unaffiliated leftists who had been drawn to the project because of the promise of left unity. That is exactly the situation that is unfoilding in the NPA too. So we're talking both qualitative and quantative growth in numbers beyond the shallow numerical strength of existing orgs. To presume, as No2EU seems to, that the whole shebang can be contained to and ruled by a self appointed senate of a few registered players is a gross mistake, and is no way to forge a new party or the sort of unity we need to foster.

Read the rest of this comment...

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Okay, where do i begin.

First by explaining what I mean by vanguard i guess. To me a vanguard is an organisation which is continually at the head of struggles and provides leadership to those struggles. Now is this not what any socialist/marxists/lefty wants a party to be doing?
My point is that a vanguard cannot just appoint itself, it is only a vanguard if it is leading struggles not if it claims to be without doing so.

The point is ModernityBlog that no-one organisation in Britain really has earnt it - there were times when a group has been at the forefront of struggles, but not continuously over quite a sustained period of time. In my opinion Militant was getting close in the 80s and the Socialist Party today has a lot of strengths that would lead it towards developing into one (hence why I'm a member of it).

As for Dave's criticisms, actually I'm not really sure what you're trying to criticise. What I was trying to say is that I think both left unity (i mean this as purely left unity between already existing organisations, i know it can have a broader meaning too) and gaining support for lefty/socialist ideas are both important you need to do slightly different things with each. With left unity each organisation needs to have a seperate identity of its own until there is near full agreement on issues, with an organisation that is made up of much broader layers it needs to find its own way of organising these people as obviously they don't belong to an existing organisation. An existing organisation has its own meeting where things can be discussed as well as any collaborative meetings between the groups, whereas if these people don;t belong to something they haven't and therefore something more formal is needed. Obviously though this depends on what the situation is concretely, but these two different factors of what is involved in some sort of unity will influence what form it takes.
On No2EU i would personally argue that the structure it had was okay for a temporary alliance between exisiting groups but it needs to be broaden and made accessible (ie. by some sort of democratic convention) if it is to develop beyond the euro elections.

ModernityBlog said...

"In my opinion Militant was getting close in the 80s and the Socialist Party today has a lot of strengths that would lead it towards developing into one (hence why I'm a member of it)."

I wouldn't disagree with what you've written above, but the problem is it doesn't sufficiently explain the decades and decades of failure, does it?

Doesn't really explain the failure of the SLL, WRP, IMG, SLP, various CPs, RCP and other grouplets? Plus various 4th/5th Internationals.

I would welcome it if the Socialist Party can somehow breakout of these stream of failures, but I'm sure, left-wing criminologist, for someone who presumably bases his views on evidence, that the record so far is not terribly good and there is little reason to believe that future endeavours will be much better.

The failure to analyse failure and bring a degree of objective analysis to these issues is one of the new Left's most conspicuous weaknesses, subjectivity always seems to win out.

The problem I suspect is partly due to the whole concept of the vanguard (a political priest class) and the rest of us.

The idea that one small(ish) group knows best, has the best analysis, sees issues as they really are, is plainly false and has been shown to be such on numerous occasions.

Previously, I have commented on these problems elsewhere.

Dave Riley said...

While I might agree that "With left unity each organisation needs to have a separate identity of its own until there is near full agreement on issues..." I nonetheless think such a perspective is mistaken because it presumes that major differences exist that need to be ironed out before proceeding to another stage.

But concretely what are these "issues"?

Where on the left do festering differences exist? Having different views of the Soviet Union may have been a dividing line for 80 years -- but that's no longer the case. Such alternative views are historical questions today So why should that preferred alignment get in the way of unity? There's a lot of filigree passed off as differences on the left for the sake of preserving organisational separation -- but when push comes to shove, a good part of the time what's all that at stake are tactical differences only.

And in the context of the everyday, tactics are going to be fluid and always open to adjustment and change.

My point was that if you begin with the presumption that major differences exist between orgs -- then you'll spend a lot of energy flushing them out and obsessing over them. But then I think you also do not get my main argument about the handicap that bears down upon us: that the main formations on the left do not want unity.

If they did, then the context we are dealing with would be very different indeed. So in reality, whatever formulation may be projected as a way to proceed -- it is a totally hypothetical exercise unless there are outfits who want to move in the direction of left unity.

This really isn't so hard to comprehend is it? You need to want something before you can get it.

I've been in a few 'unity' pow wows and unity projects over the past 25 years -- with greens, Stalinists, social democrats, and Trotskyist groupuscules -- and inevitably what ever shared activities are engineered have been resounding successes. But as soon as the big question is raised about moving one step closer together, of becoming more politically intimate and making these engagments ongoing and sustainable entities with an open agenda -- there's this reversion back to a rigid autonomy preference and the projects collapse.

If you cast your eye across the far left internationally -- and lets' make this simple and stick to that left in the English speaking countries -- there are very few Marxist organisations who are in fact dedicated to a unity perspective and have the wherewithal and chutzpah to actually do something about it. (eg: Australian DSP, New Zealand Socialist Worker group, English Socialist Resistance, Scottish Militant).

That's the problem! It's not because no route exists for this to happen. It's because the formations do not want to travel down it.

Dave Riley said...

This unity discussion has also broken out on the Socialist Unity blog around the DSP report.

Jon said...

"With left unity each organisation needs to have a separate identity of its own until there is near full agreement on issues..."

Whenever I hear the argument that left can't unite because we disagree on too many things, I always think of the huge ideological divide between the left and right of the British Labour party, or the SNP, or the Green party. Even comparing the furthest apart parties on the British left (CPB and SWP?) the political difference are tiny by comparison.

We tend to make more of our political differences on the left due to the legacy of Leninism. The lesson taught by the Bolshevik/Menshevik split and the October revolution is that unity amongst left-wing organisations is not necessary or desirable if your goal is revolution.

We live in a completely different political context now, and yet we still cling to the organisational practises of 100 years previously. This would be fine if it were working, but it clearly isn't.

Fundamentally the differences between those who want unity and those who want ideological purity are over what they fear the most in a left wing party- reformism or authoritarianism? Right now, with socialism so far off the political map that reform vs. revolution is an irrelevant debate, I would say authoritarianism is a much bigger problem.

Phil said...

I have meant to write something on this but haven't had the time to contribute. I hope to write a substantive post that does this debate justice by or at the weekend.