A critique of Mick Armstrong’s pamphlet on socialist organisation
From Little Things Big Things Grow: Strategies for building revolutionary socialist organisations, by Mick Armstrong, Socialist Alternative, 2007
In this pamphlet, Mick Armstrong tries to raise the Socialist Alternative propaganda group orientation to the level of Marxist high theory. He presents this orientation as an organic development of Marxism and Leninism and as a kind of culmination of the Marxist and Leninist tradition, which is presented as a seamless web starting with Marx and Engels and culminating ideologically in Socialist Alternative and its menu of special theories.
This approach to the history of the Marxist movement is a kind of metaphysics. Methodologically it is not Marxism because it tends to filter out of history the conflicts and contradictory developments that mark the development of socialist groups, in favour, and a retrospectively devised notion of the development of groups by defined stages.
That approach leads to a kind of mythology. The reductio ad absurdum of this approach, was JV Stalin’s reactionary and repellent 1939 history of the CPSU(B). I am not implying that Armstrong is any kind of Stalinist, but the approach to the history of the Marxist movement in his pamphlet has a lot in common with Stalin’s approach if you set aside Stalin’s revolting falsifications of history.
Earlier versions of the history of the Marxist movement, with which Armstrong’s approach has a lot in common are Zinoviev’s misleading History of the Communist Party, Bukharin’s small book Lenin as a Marxist and even the hagiographic aspects of Trotsky’s Notes Towards a Lenin Biography, published by Harrap many years ago.
These three books are historically relatively accurate, and warrant reading by young Marxists, but they all share the un-Marxist seamless web approach that Armstrong uses in his pamphlet. In a sense though, the authors, all of them heroic revolutionaries later murdered by Stalin, opened the way unknowingly to the Stalinist falsification of history by presenting the history of the Bolshevik Party in particular as a seamless web of developments.
I don’t doubt that Armstrong is familiar with these three books, although he doesn’t acknowledge them. Like me, his passionate interest in history would undoubtedly led him to read them at some point, and I would assert that his approach is to some extent shaped by those three books.
The real story of Bolshevism
The development of the Marxist movement after Marx and Engels was shot through with contradictory aspects, which is hardly surprising in a living proletarian movement. Such contradictions were evident even in the real lives of the extraordinarily devoted and intelligent revolutionaries who made up the movement.
In this group Lenin stands out as the most extraordinary figure. If you take up the story with Plekhanov’s study group, which is a pretty good place to start, Armstrong is quite correct that Plekhanov and the others saw their initial task as developing a Marxist approach to Russian conditions, and a study group was appropriate to that task and the only real means available in the prevailing conditions in Russia under Czarism in one of its more reactionary phases before the 1905 Revolution.
When Lenin came into Marxist politics in St Petersburg, his group didn’t, in fact, see itself primarily as a propaganda organisation but went straight to the masses, although that activity was brutally constrained by conditions under the Russian dictatorship.
When Lenin went into exile and joined up with Plekhanov and the others, he initially developed the theory of the necessity of Marxism partly coming into the working class from outside because of the problem of uneven consciousness, and he developed the idea of professional revolutionary organisation in What Is To Be Done.
Despite all the confusion this was the core question in the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks at the 1903 Congress. Despite this split, however, Lenin who was a revolutionary pragmatist of the highest order, stood his own faction on its head when legal opportunities in Russia opened up explosively during the 1905 Revolution.
Testing the legal possibilities opening up in Russia, he launched a sharp struggle against the underground Bolshevik “committee men”, who were to some extent his own creation. They were reluctant to swing over to the possibility of developing a mass party, a possibility that was clearly opening up. This struggle is discussed by Paul Le Blanc, Tony Cliff and Marcel Liebman, the latter in an article in Monthly Review of which an extract is available on Ozleft.)
The Bolshevik Party, and indeed the reunited RSDLP, which included the Mensheviks, became a mass party after the Revolution of 1905. At the big RSDLP conferences held in Scandinavia, Lenin, who was no respecter of formalities, even voted with the Mensheviks several times against boycotting the Duma.
The mass character of both Bolshevik and the Menshevik factions remained a political fact thereafter, even when the connections between the revolutionary exiles, including Lenin, and the connections inside Russia, became tenuous during the period of reaction. Nevertheless the scattered cadres of the RSDLP continued to exist as a mass current in Russian society.
After 1905 the Russian Marxists were never again a simple propaganda group engaged in the “primitive accumulation of cadres”. In Lenin’s political life after 1905 he was generally quite scathing about tendencies to propagandism.
The formation of the Comintern and the development of revolutionary organisation after the Russian Revolution
Armstrong’s seamless web approach, which I believe he gets mainly from Zinoviev’s book, reflects a narrow and inadequate understanding of how the Bolsheviks emerged between 1916 and 1917.
They were a much more heterogeneous group than Armstrong gives them credit for.
A very large number of the old revolutionary activists with their origins in the Russian empire, including people who had split from Lenin in the past, Left Mensheviks, Bundists, Left Social Revolutionaries, Anarcho-syndicalists, and pretty well all the Left Socialist groupings in Poland and Latvia, joined the Bolshevik movement.
Lenin declared a de facto moratorium on personal differences arising from past disagreements.
When the necessary split with the right-wing Social Democrats took place, and the Communist International was founded, the first task the Bolsheviks set themselves was the thorough clarification of the socialist program.
Nevertheless, even in this clarification they attempted to rally the best elements of both the Social Democracy and the anarcho-syndicalist movement to their side. Once the clarification of ideas and necessary splits had been consummated, they turned their eyes to other tasks (it’s worth noting that the mass Communist parties that developed in France, Italy, Czechoslavkia and Germany all had either a majority, or in the case of Germany, a large and substantial minority, of members of the old socialist parties.
In countries where this was not the case, the new Communist parties remained rather smallish sects, as England and Australia. Largely at Lenin’s initiative, right on the heels of the necessary splits, the Comintern immediately launched a united front strategy towards the Social Democracy, particularly in countries where the Communists remained a small minority.
This caused a certain amount of consternation amongst ultralefts, who were as Lenin put it “often very young”. Nowhere in the experience of the Comintern before Stalinisation did the idea of deliberate propaganda groups existing for a very long time occur at all.
Armstrong tries to impose a seamless construct on past developments to justify permanent propagandism.
What is most striking about the past history is not any seamless development from stage to stage, but sharp contradictions and disjunctures. For instance, up til 1914, Lenin tended to model his activity and his ideological development on the German Social Democracy and figures such as Karl Kautsky.
German Social Democracy’s betrayal in 1914 led Lenin to dramatically revise this, in a rather root and branch way. No seamless web here.
Another example is the way Armstrong attempts to portray revolutionary socialists in Poland as engaged in “primitive accumulation of cadres”. This is just wrong. Even in the very difficult conditions of the Czarist autocracy, all factions of the socialist movement in Poland and Lithuania led strikes and mass struggles.
In fact, one group that rallied to Polish Communism after 1919 was the semi-Bundist Revolutionary Socialist Group in Galicia led by Henryk Grossman, described so movingly in Rick Kuhn’s impressive recent book of socialist scholarship. This group of young Jewish intellectuals went straight to the Jewish working class in Galicia, organising strikes and struggles at the same time as engaging in serious Marxist theoretical development.
No “conscious propaganda group” engaged in the “primitive accumulation of cadres” emerges out of Rick Kuhn’s narrative.
“Socialism from below in the Russian Revolution and the universal application of state capitalist theory
Armstrong introduces two doctrinal propositions that in practice become shibboleths. Armstrong, like the whole of the International Socialists current, simplifies the history of the Russian Revolution down to the question of socialism from below. In reality this question is neither so simple or obvious, and becomes a shibboleth.
In his last period of exile, Lenin wrote a major theoretical work The State and Revolution. From this work, the outline of socialism from below can easily be deduced, and in fact there were enormous elements of spontaneous revolutionary activity leading up to, and during both the February and October Revolutions.
However, at an early stage, political necessity forced Lenin and the Bolsheviks to curb this spontaneity on occasions, such as during the “July days”.
Philistine critics of the October Revolution, including many accidental figures of anarchist persuasion, condemn the Bolsheviks for deliberate substitutionism and “strangling the proletarian revolution at its birth”, but the reality was more complex.
A certain substitutionism was forced on the Bolsheviks by the objective circumstances, having taken power in an extremely backward empire. They hung on doggedly to this power in the expectation that the extension of the socialist revolution to advanced countries would solve this problem.
Unfortunately, the extension never came. In hindsight, it’s clear that the Bolsheviks made some serious mistakes, particularly the ban on inner party factions, winding back the powers of the Soviets and the almost unlimited extension of the power of the Cheka.
These are all big questions and it is far too simple to reduce them to very general statements about the importance of socialism from below. The broad lesson of these events is the importance of “socialism from below”, but it can’t be plucked out of the sky, particularly in current circumstances.
Socialists should be constantly on the alert to encourage every little spark of the self-activity of the masses, but from time to time a certain substitutionism is still inevitable and even necessary if past working class achievements are not to be lost and further gains are to be made. (The question of spontaneity during the Russian Revolution is discussed in a lively and serious way in a two-part review of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution by Amy Muldoon in the US ISO’s theoretical magazine, International Socialist Review.)
In real life, Marxists are not always able to choose between “socialism from below” and a certain necessary substitutionism. In periods of retreat, without a certain amount of substitutionism, the whole socialist and working class and militant traditions would simply become extinct.
The real task that imposes itself in this situation is to innoculate socialist groupings against making a reactionary fetish of such necessary substitutionism and keeping the possibilities open for a dramatic reassertion of socialism from below when the smallest openings present themselves.
A very good example of this problem is the current battle against electricity privatisation. In reality, the launching of this battle in a way that may eventually lead to the defeat of privatisation was an initiative of the trade union bureaucracy, pushed along by the anger and hostility of the ranks of the electrical workers to the prospect of losing their jobs.
Mounting a campaign, however, required the mobilisation of whatever forces were available and it was unlikely to develop spontaneously from the affected workers, or even from the socialist groups.
Socialists should be alert to the possibilities of mobilising spontaneous activity, but such activity alone is unlikely to lead to a victory in this struggle.
On the other hand, the habitual tendency of the trade union bureaucracy to limit the struggle to labour movement and trade union manoeuvre is unlikely to lead to victory either.
A combination and interaction between both kinds of struggle has opened the possibility of victory in this struggle.
Armstrong’s loose and thoughtless reduction of “socialism from below” to a shibboleth is actually part of attempting to elevate Armstrong’s special ideology of the socialist propaganda group into an overarching doctrine.
Armstrong does the same sort of thing with the “state capitalist theory” of the Soviet Union, giving it an overarching historical significance. He selects his examples and his material to develop a specious theory that not having the state capitalist theory hopelessly disarmed the orthodox Trotskyists who subscribed to the “deformed workers state” theory. (This is particularly offensive in his section about the martyred Vietnamese Trotskyists, that they did not have the state capitalist theory. He is not even correct on that point, because one of the Vietnamese groups had a kind of state capitalist theory.
It would be more accurate to ascribe the defeat of the Vietnamese Trotskyists to the fact that they didn’t develop a subsidiary effective and substantial rural guerilla orientation. This was a substantial strategic mistake in a predominantly peasant country. Holding the “state capitalist theory” or the “deformed workers state” theory wasn’t critical.
Armstrong’s argument is for the simple-minded. In fact, there are now substantial and relatively successful Trotskyist organisations in a number of countries that adhere historically to the deformed workers state theory.
It has been traditional on the deformed workers state side of the argument to say that holding the state capitalist theory was a way station to counter-revolution, pointing to individuals such as Schachtman and Burnham for whom that certainly was the case, but that line of argument is refuted by the obvious fact that there are many serious and substantial revolutionary groups in the world that hold the state capitalist view.
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s approach, which culminates in using the state capitalist theory as a culmination of ideological development is a part of a process, in my view, of hardening a propaganda group into a kind of a sect.
In the past couple of weeks Ben Courtice, an adherent of the unstable propaganda group that thinks it is an alliance, the DSP majority, launched an attack on Armstrong’s pamphlet, demonising state capitalist theory and accusing Armstrong, by implication, of not understanding some universal relevance for the model of the one-party state in Cuba.
The DSP majority, pursuant to models overseas shrugs aside all critical considerations or misgivings about structures such as the permanent one-party state, and constructs its own shibboleth around an uncritical stance towards the Cuban government and state.
Groups moving towards sectism tend to need shibboleths as a kind of cement. (None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that arguments about the class character of the Soviet Union are unimportant. They are very important indeed and there are four or five important books on the history of these discussions and debates into which young Marxists should dip a bit as the opportunity presents itself, but these important questions should be approached in an objective spirit.
In my view, for what it is worth as an old deformed workers state adherent, with the benefit of hindsight, both theories underestimated the enormous destructive character of Stalinism both on the productive forces of the Soviet Union and on the political consciousness of the working class and the masses.
Practical implications: the positive side and the dangers inherent in Armstrong’s propaganda group theory
Stripping away Armstrong’s attempt to turn the practices and organisational forms he favours into high theory, it’s useful to study his ideas about propaganda groups in the context of his own organisation, and of other socialist groups.
It has to be said that Armstrong has a point, up to a certain level of practical tasks. All socialist groups if they are worth anything, are engaged to a certain degree in the “primitive accumulation of cadres” and as Armstrong quite reasonably points out, in current circumstances, which are difficult for the development of independent socialist groups, universities are an important site for initial recruitment.
It is my impression over quite a few years that an enormous problem confronts socialist students when they leave university. The tendency with all socialist groups, most of which are in fact propaganda groups, as Armstrong points out, is to present socialist theory as rather abstract, removed from day-to-day life.
Armstrong emphasises in his first section that student socialists learn a lot of revolutionary organisation by engaging in a certain amount of agitational activity on campus.
In this respect Armstrong is simplifying the problems of training and development of socialists to suit the needs of his permanent propaganda group idea.
Socialist Alternative is rather triumphalist and a bit self-satisfied about its growth in the past couple of years. Mick Armstrong, in particular, carefully follows the ups and downs of rival organisations, and is preoccupied by the size of his own group.
It’s probably now about the same size of the misnamed Socialist Alliance, the rival propaganda group that deludes itself it is an alliance and engages in a certain amount of mass work, usually in an extremely propagandist way.
The Socialist Alternative leadership seems to expect that that somehow their organisaiton will eventually eclipse the other four or five main socialist groups. They are having themselves on in this. The unstable Socialist Alliance probably won’t endure in its present form for much longer, but the other three groups, Solidarity, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Socialist Party in Victoria are relatively stable, and in practice have political footprints different to Socialist Alternative, particularly Solidarity and the Socialist Party.
All the groups between them present a definitive obstacle to any of the others developing in a linear way into a very large socialist organisation, which is why Armstrong’s model, which excludes any notion of rational socialist regroupment, is really a formula for building a smallish socialist group.
In addition to this, the strong grip of the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens on the left of Australian society sets very distinct limits to the growth of smallish socialist propaganda groups (all of which present their orientation to the masses in a pretty abstract way).
Most of the small socialist groups have blinkers towards any healthy centrism that develops in the Labor Party and trade union orbit and the Greens, even in current conservative conditions.
Any socialist group that doesn’t have some perspective of the eventual regroupment of socialist groups, and rational discussion and collaboration between socialist groups, and socialist activists in the ALP, the unions and the Greens, has a perspective that can’t be realised in current conditions, which are likely to persist for some time.
Socialist Alternative’s pedagogic methods
Education in the history of the socialist and Marxist movement is always a good thing, but it can have a secondary negative effect of tending to accentuate a split between theory and practice in which groups and individuals imagine a future set of catastrophic developments that will catapult socialists (meaning them) into the leadership of big movements.
This split between theory and practice, frequently and often quite quickly, leads to disillusionment with socialism because the socialist activists can’t see much connection between their socialist ideas and the real world around them.
I have attended a couple of Socialist Alternative meetings to get a bit of a taste of how the group proceeds, and I found them quite instructive.
I have a lifelong interest in socialist education and in my experience there is no simple formula for it. I have given many lectures and short courses on socialist history and theory and labour movement history.
Particularly in current conditions, with Google, Wikipedia and the internet in general tending to narrow and dumb down even professional bourgeois educational activities, I don’t have a simple answer to the problem of getting people to read and study in a self-acting way.
Students of any sort who overdo accessing things like Wikipedia and Google for essay and exam purposes tend to not absorb what they write or read, and to some extent this is the antithesis of any education, particularly socialist self-education.
A few weeks, a long-standing Marxist historian, and old friend to some extent, although a socialist political opponent, was in the shop. This bloke, who is no slouch himself in attempts at socialist education, and is of Maoist background, made a rather dismissive remark about Socialist Alternative, that they were “middle class”, and that their branch meetings consisted of postgraduate students delivering parts of their theses as lectures, and then being marked or criticised by the group leaders.
I didn’t take his observation too seriously. He is a kind of a friend and a serious Marxist intellectual but he has rather strong anti-Trotskyist prejudices.
The meetings that I attended haven’t been quite what my friend described. Socialist Alterative places great emphasis on its weekly meetings. In the past, I have been rather dismissive of this style of activity, on the basis of the posters that they put up in King Street, Newtown, which suggest to me that the questions discussed are often of a timeless historical nature, and the posters themselves tend to answer most of the questions likely to be raised in discussion.
The two meetings I have attended weren’t nearly as propagandist and routine as I expected, although they had some negative possibilities.
The pedagogic method was reasonable and the speaker delivered a summary of the issues.
At one of the meetings the speaker was also the chairperson, and at the second meeting there was a chairwoman and three-minute contributions from the floor that gave rise to reasonably lively discussion.
The first meeting was on the trade union question, and a fair bit of the discussion was rather theoretical because most of those present had not had much experience in unions.
The second meeting was less abstract. It was on education, the speaker was training to be a teacher, a number of teachers spoke in the discussion, as did quite a few who were training to be teachers and had done some prac teaching.
It didn’t strike me particularly like the view of Socialist Alternative meetings held by my jaundiced old friend. The negative side of it was, however, that it reminded me a bit of the Stalinist meetings of my youth, with the speakers from the floor trying rather hard to be “orthodox”, and the senior members summed up with the orthodoxy of the group.
This form of discussion can lead to an overemphasis on orthodoxy, which is a dangerous possibility in socialist groups.
In my experience there is no obvious formula for socialist training and classes, and the pedagogic method at Socialist Alternative meetings doesn’t seem so bad if the narrow emphasis on orthodoxy could be moderated.
I was a bit interested that in preparation for Socialist Alternative’s looming weekend education session one of the senior members was going around checking that people had done the required reading and encouraging them to do so.
To some eyes this might appear a bit schoolmasterish, but it seems quite because you have to get people to read and study somehow.
The relative narrowness of the curriculum is, of course, a different question.
Another problem for Socialist Alternative, at least in Sydney, is that flowing out of its almost total recruitment from university campuses, almost all the members are relatively new to socialist politics, and through no fault of their own have little knowledge or understanding of the broader labour movement even in its current rather worn-down and reduced form.
At least in Sydney, Socialist Alternative has almost no older members. In practice, the group is a kind of a youth organisation without any obvious organic links with the working class movement.
The old Communist Party had lively youth and student movements, but these were linked to a party organisation deeply implanted in the workers movement.
Previous Trotskyist groupings were, by and large, initially proletarian in composition and tended to attract others who had some links to the existing worker’s movement.
The existence of groupings such as Socialist Alternative is, to some extent, a result of objective conditions including the dramatic changes to the working class and a certain severing of the links between generations in the workers movement.
That can have a good side because groups of young radicals aren’t automatically ground down into passivity by past defeats, but it can also have a rather bad side if it accentuates, as I have pointed out, the gap between theory and practice. Members of small socialist groups can be obliged to reinvent the wheel.
These are big questions and big problems that need serious discussion by all socialists of good will.
Taken as a whole, however, although I have sharp political disagreements with the permanent propaganda orientation of Socialist Alternative, the group’s pedagogic methods on balance seem quite useful.
The organic weaknesses of the propaganda group orientation
Introducing his pamphlet, Armstrong puts a lot of caveats on his propaganda group orientation, which gives him a kind of out. At the second meeting I attended, it emerged that quite a large number of the members of the group will end up teaching when they complete their tertiary education, so the group has clearly got a lead into trade union agitation in the teachers’ and tertiary education unions, but what happens to the rest of the membership when they graduate?
Armstrong sketches a model in which the group with its “primitively accumulated” cadres can ride an upsurge and with their accumulated Marxist understanding slip fairly easily slip into the leadership of mass movements as they develop.
The problem with this approach is that leadership in upsurges, and indeed socialist leadership in any period, is not nearly so simple.
Generalised Marxist knowledge does not equip activists for serious leadership in any sphere of social life and or mass movement. As well as Marxist theory, knowledge and understanding of social life and any mass movement, particularly any mass movement of the modern working class, which in many respects is a new working class constructed differently to the older working class, is what equips people to take a lead in struggles.
Armstrong’s pamphlet and his perspective isn’t an organic and relatively seamless development of past Marxist organisation. It’s actually a new theory, practice and perspective that is in conflict with a number of the more useful traditions of the Marxist movement.
The pamphlet, and Armstrong’s use of the historical material, is an energetic attempt to give this new theory and perspective a theoretical-historical basis in the traditions of the socialist movement, and it falls down in the face of the contradictory evolution of the socialist movement.
The material that Armstrong presents is interesting, but he tends to simplify it to fit his attempts to create a theory.
The useful side of Armstrong’s propaganda theory and Socialist Alternative’s practice
The good side is fairly obvious. Socialist Alternative has in fact been relatively successful in what Armstrong terms “the primitive accumulation of cadres” and may be close to the upper limit possible with such a strategy.
It has about 30-45 members in Sydney, 10-20 in Brisbane and 100-150 in Melbourne. It may grow a little more in Sydney and Brisbane, but it has probably already reached its peak in Melbourne.
Another positive feature of Socialist Alternative is the considerable effort it puts into training its members in basic Marxist theory. The problem, as I have said, with this training is that it tends to remain extremely abstract.
The Socialist Alternative leadership appears to be conscious of this problem, as the meeting on the trade unions that I attended, wasn’t as nearly as abstract as a lot of their other meetings.
The negative side of permanent propaganda groups
Socialist Alternative and the new Revolutionary Socialist Party are, as propaganda groups go, a considerable distance from being the worst examples of this phenomenon on the Australian left.
They frankly proclaim they have a propaganda group orientation, which enables a discussion of this orientation. One of the worst examples of a propaganda group on the Australian left is the DSP majority, and an even worse example is the bizarre World Socialist Web Site, which sees no difference between the Tories and Labor and urges workers to leave the trade unions.
The DSP majority is particularly eccentric because, all evidence to the contrary, it continues to insist that it is some kind of Socialist Alliance despite the obvious fact that it is an inward-looking and rather egocentric propaganda group.
It intervenes sporadically in whatever workers and popular movements exist, but it always has an angle of trying to present the Socialist Alliance-DSP as the centre of these movements and upsurges, when it is clearly quite marginal to them.
It will put on any stunt to draw attention to itself, and its opportunism in pursuit of publicity leads it into quite reactionary and unprincipled stunts, such as the NoToPope business, which was clearly an exercise in unleashing religious bigotry to get publicity.
Socialist Alternative, to its credit, doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a propaganda group.
The necessity of experience
Socialist Alternative’s student-oriented propaganda group strategy has a number of problematic features.
The first arises from the facile aspect of Armstrong’s basic proposition. When an upsurge comes, according to Armstrong, the propaganda group with its Marxist training can slot itself into the leadership of it.
This idea is based on a rather romantic view of what happened in previous working class upsurges such as the Russian Revolution. The difficulty is that new upsurges will take place in changed and complex conditions, and a rather theoretical grasp of Marxist theory doesn’t equip one to lead struggles, which are usually very concrete.
Experience and training in the specifics of areas like the labour movement are necessary for people who aspire to lead upsurges. In the Russian Revolution, or the Polish upsurges, the Vietnamese struggle, or the radicalisation of the labour movement in France, all of which Armstrong discusses, the socialist leaders who emerged were people with substantial experience in workers’ struggles, or in the national struggle in the case of Vietnam.
Such groups have considerably more political capital than any group separated as a matter of policy from the modest struggles of the day.
Practical training is needed, insofar as that is possible, in activity and leadership in social life and the workers movement.
The above criteria apply in upsurges, but at the moment, we are still in a very defensive period, which Armstrong asserts and I agree with.
In this kind of defensive period, a simple propaganda orientation tends to accentuate the difficult problem of the tendency of socialist groups towards a complete gap between theory and practice.
The inward-looking routine of a propaganda group will be acceptable to people for a greater or lesser period depending on their temperament and circumstances.
People are often enthusiastic for a while when they discover socialism through a propaganda group, while they feel they are still learning.
After a while, however, the deadening routine of this kind of group often becomes unsatisfying and even boring. Unfortunately, the people who eventually depart from propaganda groups often give up on socialist aims completely because they have difficulty connecting what they have learnt with social life.
This often happens when young radicals leave university. In addition to this, the heavy emphasis usual in propaganda groups on conformity and agreement with the leadership, and hostility to other socialist groups, tends to accentuate the inward-looking features of the group.
An alternative perspective
There are six main socialist groups on the left in Australia and a substantial number of socialists and Marxists in the Labor Party and the Greens.
The various groups have different spheres of activity and different footprints. The likelihood of them eclipsing each other, and one of them becoming dominant, is infinitessimal.
From this objective circumstance and from the extremely defensive character of the period, the following perspective for socialists is indicated very practically.
It would be utopian and thoroughly undesirable to lecture the existing groups that they should all go out of business except one’s own.
That particular formula has been tried by the DSP majority for the past six years, and has only led to further splits and the rapid decline of the DSP-Socialist Alliance.
What is really required is a big political discussion of all the outstanding political questions among socialists, particularly the current strategic ones.
To this end, factional rhetoric should be moderated, and we should all undertake a bit of a self-denying ordinance in this.
Institutions should be developed for a rational discussion to proceed. A modest model of the beginnings of such a development has just developed in the United States, where a useful and interesting conference took place a few weeks ago.
A conference on the historical legacy of the Trotskyist movement in the US took place with the active participation and involvement of the largest socialist propaganda group in the US, the International Socialists, and of three or four smaller socialist groups.
A number of other participants had been active leaders of the US Socialist Workers Party before its degeneration, while others were important Marxist intellectuals, particularly Bryan Palmer, author of an extremely useful and informative biography of James P Cannon, and Paul Le Blanc who has written important works on Leninism.
We should take note of what Marx said in the 19th century: that the English working class should learn French, in other words the lessons of the Paris Commune.
In this context, Australians and New Zealanders should learn American and kick off some kind of initiative like this US conference.
Trade union problems
By Farrell Dobbs
This extract from Farrell Dobbs’s Trade Union Problems published in 1940 seems relevant in this discussion. I’d also strongly recommend the important article, The Myth of Lenin’s Elitism, by Paul D’Amato in the July-August issue of the US ISO’s magazine, International Socialist Review, and my article, Reclaim Lenin from “Leninists” and “Leninism”.
Progressives in the Unions
To win the confidence and respect of the workers it is necessary to show them capabilities of leadership through practical demonstrations of ability. A leader must strive to be the most useful member of the union. He must be efficient even in the smallest details of union work, and must not be afraid to do the Jimmy Higgins duties. The workers respect most, those who volunteer their service on any and all union business, and who are at the same time courageous fighters on the picket line. The flippant use of trite names, hackneyed language and patent formulas should be avoided. Terms such as “bureaucrat”, “faker”, “sell out”, “betrayal,” are dangerous if lightly used. Laziness of thought is caused by this tendency to substitute a catch phrase for serious analysis. The workers are not very much impressed by bombastic language. They respond much better to a penetrating analysis and the resultant convincing arguments. Any other presentation is apt to discredit the critic, instead of the criticised.
There are not patent policies for the handling of trade union questions. That which applies in one case may work with opposite effect in another. One must study the industry in which he is organising. Government reports and the trade journals of employers are excellent sources of information. The workers can give the clearest picture of all as to what the conditions are, and just what immediate practical steps can be taken for improvement. The question of locality — deep south, industrial east, agricultural west etc, is also an important factor.
Policy in the trade unions must flow from a careful analysis of specific conditions with the resultant general conclusions. The economic trend, the direction of development in the labour movement generally, the immediate nature of bourgeois political activity and its general trend, the strength of employers in the given circumstances, the level of development of the workers — these are a few of the important considerations. Guard against catering to mistaken sentiments of the workers which could only result in unnecessary injury to them, and the movement generally.
Avoid the tendency to make arbitrary categories for each type of individual in the mass movement. It is a serious mistake to form a snap judgement of people on the basis of the first speech heard, their position in the first discussion, or on the basis of rumour and generally accepted ideas about them. It is necessary to determine first if the individual reflects in his attitude the experiences of the union, or if he has failed to learn the lessons of these experiences. It must be remembered that not all who practice class collaboration in one form or another are class conscious collaborationists. The question is one of level and direction of development.
It is necessary to check carefully each person’s past. What has he contributed to the movement? What mistakes has he made and under what circumstances? Has he had bad teaching? How does he now respond to progressive proposals? Is he learning from experience? All the factors responsible for his present attitude must be thoroughly analysed, and every effort made to accelerate his progressive development. A worker who through ignorance scabs today may be a militant striker another day. A leader who at one time supports reactionary policies may at a later time become a progressive. The ideology of human beings is not a static thing, especially in the labour movement.
Even in the case of those who appear to be hopelessly reactionary, the progressive dare not turn his back upon them. The problem is to find a way to attenuate their opposition, even halt it, if only temporarily, and it is not impossible that under the impact of certain experiences the direction of their development may be reversed in a progressive direction. Ways and means must be found to attempt to cause each individual in the movement to voluntarily, or if necessary, involuntarily, play a certain progressive role.
It must be remembered that each trade union is a tiny mirror which reflects a small though distorted image of the whole class. On the right hand stand the class collaborationists, the conscious reactionaries. On the left are the elements who stand for the class struggle. Between these two forces lie the great mass of the trade union membership, deceived by false education, poisoned by vicious propaganda, chained to the wheel of capitalist exploitation, ground down by the struggle for their daily bread, dreaming of freedom but failing to understand the only road to its realisation. The progressive seeks to guide these masses along the road of class struggle. The class collaborationists seek not only to block this road, but also to drive the progressives out of the leadership, and if necessary, out of the unions. In spite of this brake upon them, the workers surge forward in struggle, only to recede again into a period of passivity. The progressive must learn to understand the moods of the masses, and he must adjust his tactics to them. He must press at every opportunity for the sharpening of the class struggle, but he must not press the workers into actions against their collective will. To attempt to do so is to play into the hands of the reactionaries, to risk the loss of the workers’ confidence, to become isolated from them. The progressive trade unionist dare not forget or ignore this.