Socialism is about power. Fundamentally any conception of socialism worth its salt must include the empowerment of the working class to be the master of its own destiny. Whilst we can debate the high ideals and sketch visions of what a future society might look like, all these discussions will prove meaningless unless we can find away to accrue the power required to make them concrete. The key question then for socialists, especially given the seeming powerlessness of the working class at present, is by what means can the working class be elevated to power?
Firstly, we must inspect where power lies in society as it exists today. An obvious starting point in this inspection is the political classes, parliament and the house of lords. Clearly however our politicians do not have a free hand, they are subject to pressures and interests, most obviously from big business, in whose interests they frequently govern. Business derives its power from its finance and its means to generate it, its control over the economy. This control is decreed by law and the laws in turn enforced by the security apparatus of the state, the army and the police.
All of this of course is utterly dependent on the workers who work in these various institutions and in the wider economy. This is why Marxists have focused upon the working class as opposed to various other oppressed categories. It is the workers who make society tick and they who can shut it down. In a sense the working class already has a massive latent power over society just waiting to be realised, the task then is unlocking this power, the solution: organisation.
When workers are organised in accordance with their class interests, traditionally into unions, they are better able to wield their latent power. In ideal circumstances the union movement can act as a school of class struggle, building the confidence necessary for workers to take more and more power for themselves on the job. As the balance of workplace power changes, with worker’s increasingly calling the shots, so too does the balance of power in the economy shift towards the working class. Suddenly, the notion of workers controlling all of society doesn’t seem so far fetched after all.
Of course for this sort of union power to be realised the unions must be more than workplace organisations. The best unions have turned their hand to community politics and service provision, fighting for their members not just in the workplace but at home as well. Clearly, however, the unions as we find them today are far from this vision, thus the primary task of socialists in the here and now is to campaign to build the sort of labour movement that we want to see, broad and powerful and capable of realising socialism.
Most on the left, however, advocate an alternate schema to this union-centric approach. Understandably, for many the starting point is a socialist party1, being based on and recruiting those already convinced of socialist ideas. Such an approach typically does not exclude unions, but rather relegates them to secondary importance compared with the focus on party-building. There are, however, problems with the party-centric route to socialism.
One important problem is that of keeping elected representatives accountable given the power imbalance between them and ordinary members. Look for example at the experience of the Scottish Socialist Party trying to deal with Tommy Sheridan (a story with which I’m intimately familiar, having been a member of the party at that time).
A more fundamental issue is whether or not parliament has the capacity to deliver the sort of far-ranging social change necessary for the empowerment of the working class. Unlike the unions, a political party, even a socialist one, is not directly involved in the struggle between workers and bosses and so can less readily function as a school of class consciousness. The socialist party requires its members to be socialists, whilst the union can appeal to the entirety of the working class, irrespective of ideology. Whilst the slow building up of union power trains workers every day in the art of making their own decisions and overcoming the obstacles thrown in their way by the bosses, the experience of a political battle for socialist reform teaches few of these lessons. In fact there is a danger of conveying precisely the wrong idea: that it is the job of others (in this case the socialist MPs) to win social change.
Is it possible to reconcile these two approaches, union-centric and party-centric? Historically a roughly equal balance between the two was traditionally advocated by DeLeonist socialists, who were heavily involved in the founding of the IWW union in the US. They advocated that whilst it was the industrial unions that would ultimately train and elevate the working class to power, the socialist party would have a central role in facilitating and legitimising the union movement via parliament.
In this vision the party is but a tool for the elevation of workplace based organisation, for example the party would seek to pass legislation favouring the union movement. Ultimately, winning a parliamentary election would then give the party the opportunity to directly pass power to the labour movement, transferring the legitimacy held by parliamentary government and legitimising working class power to those who set stock in elections.
The obvious counter point to this plan is that in pursuing legislative change or the transfer of power the socialist party will face all sorts of obstacles. Without a parliamentary majority it will find it difficult to win favourable legislation and should it gain a majority it will have to contend with an unhappy and possibly coup d’état inclined military and business elite.
These are not insurmountable problems, but they do point to inefficiencies in this strategy. The real issue however is one of resources. If it is the unions and similar organisations that are to empower our class, then it would seem to follow that the majority of our resources, be it activist time or finance, should be focussed towards this end. A socialist party could help build the union movement, albeit indirectly, but ultimately pursuing it risks us losing focus on the broader strategy. There are many tales of frustrated campaigners, trying to build exactly the sort of grass roots working class organisations advocated here, who find that, when election time rolls around, the socialists suddenly disappear, having prioritised the election.
In my experience, party building, whilst on paper potentially useful to the process of building working class power, is more often than not a distraction. Whilst those advocating a party-centric or balanced approach will often pay lip service to the importance of trade union and community work, the reality is that frequently it is discarded in favour of concentrating on the party. With the union movement in the dire state that we find it it is more important than ever that socialist activists get involved. Through this difficult but ultimately rewarding work we can start to build the society we want to see, one of genuine democracy and working class power.
- This is not the only model for socialist party politics, an obvious alternative to the broad socialist party is the Bolshevik-style cadre organisation, however discussion of this form is beyond the scope of this article ▲