A Crisis of Revolutionary Organisation

The world capitalist crisis demands a revolutionary response, argues Neil Faulkner, and that means mass revolutionary organisation.

5 May 2020.


[This article is a discussion document offered as a contribution to ongoing debates about left realignment.]

There are moments when a crisis of revolutionary organisation becomes a decisive factor in the historical process. This was the case in the 1930s.

Social Democracy and Stalinism were the overwhelmingly dominant forces in the working-class movement. In particular, the influence of Stalinism on the European working-class vanguard led to a series of catastrophic defeats – most notably in Germany, where the Stalinists split the working class in the face of the Nazi threat in 1932/3, and in Spain, where they led the counter-revolution inside the Republic in 1936/7 and prepared the ground for Franco’s victory in 1939.

The crisis of the 2020s looks set to be at least as serious as that of the 1930s. We, like our forebears, may be facing a choice between barbarism and socialism. If so, the crisis of revolutionary organisation, in the world generally, and not least in Britain, may assume decisive significance in the history of the next decade.

The focus here is on Britain. The revolutionary Left in Britain is weaker than at any time since the late 1960s. It consists mainly of organisations, and fragments of organisations, that emerged in the upsurge of 1968-75; but now in a much reduced and often degenerated condition.

This crisis has been given its present shape by the events of the last five years. Part of the radical Left has collapsed into a form of left nationalism in the context of the Brexit crisis. Part of it – often overlapping with the former – has liquidated into left reformism in the context of the Corbyn upsurge.

The political situation is now much graver than it was five years ago. Brexit has been the framework for the election of a hard-right Tory government peddling nationalism and racism. Corbynism has collapsed and the Right is again in control of the Labour Party; the Labour Left is fragmenting, shrinking, and faced with a long series of exhausting and demoralising rearguard actions.

The weakness and parochialism of the Left is hopelessly out of sync with the scale and speed of development of the world capitalist crisis, and therefore with the needs of the international working class in the face of pandemic, mass unemployment, rising poverty, militarisation, mass displacement, and fast-approaching climate catastrophe.

Organisation is the mediation between theory and practice. Radical ideas have to be carried by thousands of activists if they are to influence mass forces. Upsurges of struggle are blind and burn themselves out without rising mass consciousness.

That is why revolutionaries – always and everywhere – have an obligation to attempt to build organisation.

Size Matters

The Tory Party may be the most successful political party in history. Formed in the late 17th century, it has never suffered a major split. It has been the primary political expression of the British ruling class, in whole or in part, for 350 years.

The Tory Party has remained united even in the face of deep internal divisions on fundamental issues – like appeasement before the Second World War, or the EU and Brexit more recently.

The Labour Party has also held together for a century without a major split, despite being permanently divided between a Right seeking accommodation with the system and a Left seeking radical reform.

Clearly, there is nothing inevitable about major political disagreements – let alone minor ones – taking the form of organisational splits.

Nor is this a special characteristic of the revolutionary Left. Even when the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party ‘split’ in 1903, the two factions, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, retained a close relationship, with some RSDLP branches still having supporters of both factions as members as late as the middle of 1917.

And the Bolsheviks themselves suffered only minor splits; the core of the faction/party held together from 1903 to 1927. All the major arguments among Russian revolutionaries in this tumultuous period of revolution, war, and civil war were fought out inside the party.

Clearly, there is nothing inevitable about major political disagreements taking the form of organisational splits even in revolutionary parties.

We are therefore obliged to explain the exceptional, debilitating, and now, in the face of the world capitalist crisis, potentially disastrous fragmentation of the revolutionary Left in Britain (and across much of the rest of the world).

A Materialist Analysis of Fragmentation

I want to suggest five reasons for the crippling fragmentation of the revolutionary Left. But first, a word of guidance, and a sort of apology, to readers, especially younger readers, who are new to the arcane debates of the revolutionary Left.

Theory is necessary to guide practice, and theory is the concentrated expression of the lessons of 200 years of working-class struggle. We ignore the lessons of the past at our peril: ignorance of history and theory will doom us to make the same mistakes over again. So please bear with us.

Here is why I think we are so weak, fragmented, and therefore ineffective.

1. The low level of mass struggle

The working class in struggle imposes its own organisational discipline on the movement. To fight effectively – against a capitalist class and a state apparatus both of which are highly centralised – workers must unite and co-ordinate their efforts.

Any revolutionary organisation with a chance of influencing the course of mass struggle has to be embedded in the fighting vanguard of the class. It is obvious that a certain minimum size of organisation – a certain minimum of embedded activists – is necessary to achieve this.

Sectarian fragmentation is a self-indulgence that can be afforded by activists who are irrelevant to the class struggle, but not to those embedded in it. Real struggle requires united work. The working class in action imposes discipline, a sense of proportion, a set of priorities which are absent in the ‘sectosphere’. Above all, it is the prospect of victories/real gains that underpins revolutionary unity.

Notable in this regard is the fact the most splits have arisen from arguments over strategy and tactics, not general principles or theories. When the level of struggle is high, ideas can be tested in practice, and unity maintained on the basis that mistakes are corrected and the organisation does what works. When it is low, ideas remain abstract; they cannot be tested, arguments cannot be resolved, and splits occur.

2. Defeat and demoralisation

The neoliberal counter-revolution has inflicted a succession of crippling defeats on the working class over the last 40 years. Union membership has been halved, workplace organisation largely destroyed, the strike rate at rock-bottom for decades. The balance of wealth and power has in consequence shifted sharply from labour to capital.

Victory has many mothers; defeat is an orphan. People blame each other when things go wrong. When the Left is advancing, confidence and optimism hold organisation together. When it is retreating, demoralisation and recrimination make it fall apart.

3. Political degeneration

Revolutionary parties rise and fall in the context of upsurges and downturns in struggle. The Jacobin Party was created by the French Revolution. The Bolsheviks became a mass organisation in the 1905 Revolution and were then reduced to tiny groups of squabbling exiles and clandestine reading groups in the dark years following defeat.

Virtually all the organisations on the British revolutionary Left today have their origins in the great upsurge of 1968-75. None became mass organisations – partly, I think, because so many of them adopted a false ‘democratic centralist’ model of organisation (see Point 4 below). The most successful of them – the SWP and the Militant – were sustained by the massive defensive struggles waged by the British working class against the Thatcher regime in the 1980s. Then we faced collapse.

The strike rate – a key measure of working-class combativeness – has now been at rock-bottom for 30 years (see Point 2 above). This involved revolutionary organisations in ‘battening down the hatches’ (the SWP term) for the long haul.

But life determines consciousness, not consciousness life. Revolutionary organisations cannot defy social gravity. They cannot fail to reflect the outside world. They cannot insulate themselves from what is happening inside the working class.

A culture of ‘substitutionism, bureaucratisation, ossification, and political degeneration’ (to quote one critical analysis) was the long-term consequence. Serious political mistakes and misorientation have, of course, flowed from this.

4. Historical caricatures

Ideas matter. False theory leads to false practice. The post-war revolutionary Left has been operating with a false theory of revolutionary organisation based upon a misreading of historical experience. A top-down ‘democratic centralist’ model of revolutionary organisation – where sects are, in effect, run by small, largely self-selecting, and certainly self-perpetuating cliques – has been dominant in the post-war period. This seems to have at least three significant historical roots:

a) A misunderstanding of some passages in Lenin’s 1902 What Is To Be Done pamphlet and of the significance of the 1903 split at the Second Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). The crucial mistake has been a failure to place both text and debate in full historic context. This leads directly to my second point.

b) A failure to recognise that Lenin’s model for the RSDLP was the German Social Democratic Party – i.e. a mass democratic organisation campaigning openly – and that he supported ‘opening’ the Party to mass recruitment and mass democracy whenever this was possible – i.e. in the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions. At other times, however, the RSDLP was an illegal underground organisation operating under a dictatorship. There was, in fact, never any such thing as a ‘Leninist party of a different sort’. The only real distinction was between open democratic organisation (the ideal) and the imperatives of underground work. (I deal with this in some detail in Chapter 3 of my People’s History of the Russian Revolution for those who want a more detailed exposition of the argument.)

c) The Bolsheviks took power in circumstances of exceptional economic, social, and military crisis. After the October Revolution, Russia was immediately plunged into a three-year Civil War, which completed the economic and social collapse. The effect was to empty the cities and destroy the mass democratic movement that had made the Revolution. Only the party-state bureaucracy remained. Poverty and scarcity formed the social base of the new regime. Party-state dictatorship became its political form. This created the conditions for full-blown counter-revolution and the construction of a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship: Stalinism. The real history of the Bolsheviks was then buried under a mountain of lies, and a grotesque caricature of Bolshevik practice – ‘democratic centralism’ – was propagated as the model to be followed by all (Stalinised) communist parties.

The revolutionary Left needs to break completely from this false (and failed) model of political organisation. Needless to say, it will not be possible to build mass revolutionary organisations unless the level of struggle rises. On the other hand, the post-war revolutionary Left failed to build mass organisations even when the level of struggle was relatively high – especially in 1968-75, when the working class was on the offensive, but even in the period 1975-1991, when the working class fought a series of massive defensive battles (including one spectacular victory: the Poll Tax Revolt).

More recently, anti-globalisation, anti-war, and anti-austerity upsurges have not halted the steady decline of the revolutionary Left. There has to be something wrong with the organisational model.

The central issue is democracy. The ruling class hates democracy like death. The working class, on the other hand, tends to create organs of participatory democracy whenever it engages in mass struggle; and the higher the level of struggle, the more layers of the class that are drawn into battle, the higher the level of democracy tends to be.

The idea that a revolutionary party should not mirror that democracy is ludicrous – and highly alienating to newly radicalised activists entering the struggle for the first time and imbued with its democratic culture.

The basic rules to be followed are obvious: all positions should be elected, and all representatives should be subject to immediate recall and replacement; all members should have complete freedom to communicate with each other, form groups/caucuses, publish documents, etc; there should be maximum opportunity for debate and disagreement at all times; majority decisions should be binding in relation to action, elected positions, and public statements, but not in relation to free expression of dissenting views inside the party; and so on.

5. Virtual organisation

The fragmentation has been facilitated and exacerbated by new ways of organising. Here is one example:

The production, distribution, and sale of a revolutionary newspaper require a certain minimum of funds, infrastructure, and cadre. The creation of a revolutionary website requires one person with a computer.

Setting up and sustaining a revolutionary group used to involve a great deal of very hard work. The effort involved incentivised a serious commitment to organisational unity and effectiveness. Today, anyone can set up a virtual group in a morning, and, occasionally, end up with thousands on the streets the following evening. This is good for rapid-response protest, but does not help us create stable mass political organisation.

Sectarian Comfort Blankets or Revolutionary Organisation?

Even a ‘small mass party’ can make a difference. In the mid-late 1970s, the SWP, with around 4,000 members, was large enough to launch and sustain Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, building a mass anti-fascist movement that effectively destroyed the National Front.

In the period 1989-91, the Militant Tendency, whose membership may have reached 8,000, was large enough to provide the main organisational underpinning of the Poll Tax Revolt, a mass social movement that involved an estimated 14 million tax strikers, sufficient to defeat a regressive Tory tax and bring down a hated Tory leader.

By contrast, small organisations of 50, 100, or 250 cannot hope to have any serious impact on the class struggle.

We have a choice. We can pose as revolutionaries by joining a tiny group of others, talking among ourselves, and denouncing other equally tiny groups for their quirks and deviations. History, meantime, will take its course.

Or we can take ourselves seriously, recognise our obligation to the working class and the revolutionary tradition, and start the process of building a united organisation that might, at some point in the foreseeable future, achieve the critical mass necessary to make a difference.

The scale of the world capitalist crisis means that the choice, again, is likely to be barbarism or socialism. If that is true, whether or not we can create a united revolutionary organisation may turn out to be a question of world-historical importance.

Neil Faulkner is a revolutionary socialist active in Mutiny and author of A People’s History of the Russian Revolution and A Radical History of the World.

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