In this article I wish to write down some of my thoughts on socialist organization, more specifically on spontaneity and control within the working class and how this relates to socialist organization(s). The thinking underlying this article starts with the realization I had some time ago that no matter how much socialists claim or have claimed to truly represent or even be the working class, there is a sort of universal tendency within left-wing history to be outmanoeuvred precisely by this same working class. This socialist lack of control over the workers is an interesting starting point for some notes on the positioning of socialist organizations in relation to the ebb and flow of spontaneously erupting politics.
On this question, there are within socialist politics, I would argue, two relatively dominant views. The first of which I will call the militarists. This view is somewhat typical of large, mass organizations representing significant parts of the working-class, generally with some form of democratic deficit or tendency towards bureaucratism. It basically entails that the working-class represent the loyal, unwavering shock troops of the generals at the top of the organization, who can without problems move around their units in the class war. It goes without saying that reality is slightly more complex, and sadly for the would be generals among us the working class or even mass, socialist organizations don’t easily let themselves be controlled. The complex interplay of networks, political culture, grassroots ideologies and local conditions make it so that the working-class maintains significant autonomy towards socialist organizations, even in situations when they are very popular. And thus socialists can, even at high-points of their power, only enforce a relatively limited level of control over the workers in general. Furthermore the contradictions that exist within mass parties themselves are often significant, making it so that even the bases of socialist organizations, particularly of the mass variety, maintain significant autonomy from their leadership. In this context the study of base-level militants within mass socialist organizations would be very useful, particularly in relation to tensions between them and party leadership. The recurrence of clampdowns on the working-class by groups claiming to represent them during periods of intense collective action can easily be set within the context of this view, although of course not completely explaining it.
Taking a slight detour, socialists should adopt a more nuanced perspective on the working-class, as it mostly only exists as an ideal-typical collection of all individuals engaged in wage labour. Really existing class on the other hand rarely corresponds to this broad, “economic” interpretation of class and most likely never will, instead it being fractured by cultural, organizational and economic distinctions making it relatively hard to entirely unify or even represent them as it entails many different groups and interests. Even though all of these groups and interests are ultimately linked through the same position within the production process (of course this does not detract from the potentially progressive use of arguing for the unification of the working-class). Going back to the issue of the socialist organization the position of the militarists is quite tenuous when considering the heterogeneity of the working-class and by extension a mass socialist organization.
On the other hand there is the view that I will call the minoritarians. This group precisely emphasizes its separation from the working-class, and generally supports a view that the nature of the socialist organization’s goal is precisely to stick to its minoritarian character and exactly defined, homogeneous political views. It is then the task of this political organization to inject these views into the working-class and influence them in the “right” direction, and only at some point very near to a socialist transition (which is supposed to be quite a sudden event) can the minoritarian character of the organization be overcome as significant amounts of the working-class are won over to the previously guarded ideology of the organization and join it en masse. Again reality is more complex than this. And oddly enough the argument is relatively similar to the critique of the militarists. Namely that the mobilization of the working class is a complex issue, it being something that flows through structures that shape political life within our society. They flow through networks formed within society, determined by how work is organized, by how civil society is organized, by spatial patterns (say the divide between living and working areas). They are shaped by traditions of collective action that are constantly changing and determine the “repertoire” working-class movements draw their actions from. They are shaped by formulations of ideology and demands that have more to do with the spread of memes than with high level theorizing. A small and homogeneous political organization can intervene somewhat within this context but its main goal of influencing the working-class is fundamentally hampered by its small size and reach, in other words they are too small to intervene meaningfully in the underlying base of working-class political life. Ironically the big, mass organizations being much more successful at the purported goal of these minoritarian organizations, simply because their massive size allows them to influence the fundamental underlying structures of working-class life much easier.
To conclude I will put down my recommendations in relation to this issue. As I have tried to show, both approaches are fundamentally skewed. A socialist organization on one hand should be extremely careful with personifying itself with the working-class and dreaming about its control over it, as it is a hugely complex and contradictory group that will probably never in its entirety let itself be captured or represented by socialists. Not even by organizations that can incorporate significant parts of this working-class for longer periods of time. The minoritarian approach on the other hand does not carry behind it sufficient organizational capacity to intervene meaningfully in the underlying reality of working-class life. A superior approach would be to see the socialist organization(s) as a potential relay through which grass-roots initiatives can develop when they arise. The working class is thus not seen as somehow personified within the socialist organization, but on the other hand the need to build up an extensive mass organization is recognized as necessary to influence the spontaneous expressions of working-class dissent. This would be done mainly by integrating the organization within the daily life and culture of working class politics. By recognizing and influencing basic political culture of the working-class in the form of songs, slogans, symbols, traditions..etc. By integrating your organization into the organizational ecology of communities and workplaces and providing a contribution to the daily reproduction of the working-class. By building up organizational capacity (entailing everything from offices to talented organizers) that can provide the basis from which the working-class can mobilize. And finally by being a platform for the working-class to raise its voice from.