Class warfare

Class war is a concept immediately familiar to most those on the far left and indeed is sufficiently well known as to receive the occasional reference in the mainstream media. As with all concepts we use to understand social forces, it colours how we think about our political activity and influences how we act day by day. Consequently is worth re-examining to tease out our understanding and see how such concepts can be usefully applied and extended.

Clearly, with the irreconcilable differences in interest between workers and bosses there is indeed constant conflict. Comparatively small strikes and other workplace based actions constitute a continual guerrilla warfare between workers and bosses. However recently this class struggle has perhaps been more akin to a cold rather than hot war, with low-level fights breaking out at the peripheries. At no time recently has the capitalist class felt particularly threatened by organised labour. The main armies (on our side the unions) have seldom thrown themselves in to full battle with capital, after all they are not ideologically predisposed to.

Some on the left have sought to counterpoise themselves to this ideologically-induced passivity by elevating unrelenting warfare to a cast iron principle, believing that the correct response is always to strike, always to ratchet up militancy. The folly of this stance is of course that much like in real warfare there are times when an orderly retreat is better than risking a total rout. Striking after the harvest is in is going to be far less effective than waiting 9 months to when your labour is at its most needed.

Of course this sensible stance can lead to leftists and union activists to put themselves in odd positions. If some hot-head wants to call a strike the day after the harvest is in any sensible revolutionary would do their best to contradict them, to argue against striking. Similarly there are times when we have to advocate reaching agreements with our bosses, armistices in the class war, as our meagre resources do not permit us to fight on all sides simultaneously. As much as such compromises may be distasteful to those who prefer to preach from an ivory tower, no revolution will ever be made without someone getting their hands dirty.

“Amateurs study strategy; professionals study logistics” goes an old military adage, one which can also be applied to the class warfare analog. In our context strategy can be seen as the grand plan, how we intend to win a given confrontation with the government.  Logistics then is the ability to set up the context of a battle, the ability to mobilise resources that serve to establish the strategic context in which a battle will be fought.

In regular warfare logistics is hugely important. To pick just two prominent examples,  the Ho Chi Minh trail was key to the victory of the Viet-cong by enabling them to swiftly move supplied to the front. Similarly the Prussian railways proved a decisive factor in their victory in the Franco-Prussian war.

Our equivalent has to be our own war machines, our mass organisations. Where we are well funded and well organised, where our members are well trained and closely linked in with the rest of the union, we will win. We need to build the sort of organisations that are optimised for victory and designed to build and consolidate based on them. In practice this means that in addition to maintaining a solid administrative base we also need to be at the forefront of developing training and encourage intra-union socialising.

In order to ensure the organisational cohesion  systemic planning necessary for our war machines, much like a regular army we need a unified command.  At present coordination between unions is rare and ad-hoc.  Rivalries between unions are often intense and frequently there will be a multitude of unions competing to organise one industry or even one workplace.  If we are serious about building unions as fighting machines, capable ultimately of transforming society, then we need to argue for mergers, for organisation on an industrial basis and for extending unions across borders.  In short, we need One Big Union.

In summary, I think looking at class struggle as analogous to military warfare is a largely useful concept.  The metaphor can be extended in several ways to suggest to us areas of importance and we can learn much from the great lessons of military history, whether it be the importance of logistics, the necessity of a unified command or the importance of a well ordered retreat.

Anarchism, the best bits

I don’t really identify as an anarchist, partly for the reasons outlined in this post and partly because I think the historical impact of Syndicalism has been more significant.  However, when writing on an anarchist forum the other day about educational proposals I was putting to Liberty & Solidarity (as its education secretary) I was challenged as to why there was a lack of anarchist content in the courses.  This got me thinking, as much as I spend a lot of time critiquing aspects of anarchism and its movement, what are the positive contributions of Anarchism?

Sadly, clarity of definition is not one of these positive aspects.  Anarchism has a very confused identity and is associated with various diverse tenancies such as individualism and insurrectionism.  As a socialist naturally the school of Anarchism I find most relevant is social anarchism, the anarchism of the Spanish Revolution and Nestor Makhno.

Anti-electoralism

One belief that social anarchism is well known for on the left is its opposition to participation in elections.  Whilst most socialists share with the anarchists a critique of democracy as it exists under capitalism, the anarchists typically have a more developed understanding.  For example, anarchists are crystal clear that lasting social change cannot come through the ballot box, and that through participating in elections socialists not only waste resources but risk legitimising a fundamentally flawed system.

Whilst socialist organisations often claim a similar viewpoint, this is frequently contradicted by their practice, throwing disproportionate resources into gaining electoral representation at the expense of other work.  Even in cases where socialists succeed at gaining representation, the compromises made to attain and retain that position often leads to corruption, moving to the right, or elected representatives having an undue influence over their respective party.  Examples of these trends can be seen across the globe such as Rifondazione Comunista senators voting in favour of continuing the Italian presence in Afghanistan or Tommy Sheridan using his power accrued as a member of parliament to turn on his own party when it refused to back him in his disastrous libel trial against a News of the World.

Boring old history

Dull

Whilst whether or not socialists should stand in elections or not is an immediate, practical consideration, social anarchists are also differentiated from other socialists by their interpretation of certain historical events.  Whilst many on the left may roll their eyes at the mention of the Russian revolution the fact remains that it was an event of huge significance. It shaped geo-politics for 75 years and continues to influence the left today.  This is why having an understanding of what happened in the early days of the Russian revolution, and crucially, what went wrong, is still important a century later.

I’m no historian, and I certainly can’t read Russian, but like many leftists I have done a fair bit of reading around the question of what transpired in Russia.  That the Bolsheviks failed to implement socialism there is no question, Lenin himself admitted as much with the introduction of the NEP.  So why did they fail?  For what I can make out, the events of October (or more accurately November) 1917 constituted a coup by a political party, not a worker’s revolution.  Now there is no doubt that this coup was popular, it would not have succeeded otherwise, but there reality of “all power to the soviets” was in fact “all power to the Bolshevik-controlled institutions”, with other arguably more democratic structures such as factory committees effectively hamstrung by the Bolsheviks.

Soon the Bolsheviks began to wield their power to shut down even soviets that would not tow the line.  Even before the outset of the civil war the Bolsheviks and their secret police were shutting down soviets that refused to return Bolshevik majorities.  This does not look a lot like worker’s democracy.

Prefiguration

So why wasn’t there a workers revolution in Russia? Obviously this is a huge and multi-faceted question, but there is an overriding theoretical explanation from the anarchist camp.  Prefiguration is the idea that the new world needs to be built in the shell of the old.  This means building organisations that mirror the society we want to see.

Anarchists don’t advocate this for idealistic moral reasons.  People are socialised into organisations and cultures, if we want to see a democratic society after the revolution individuals need to be socialised into democracies today.  More importantly, revolutions and the administering of post-revolutionary societies are complex task requiring a lot of coordination.  To pull these off we need mature organisations capable of organising and marshalling the forces of the whole of our class as well as allowing democratic expression.  This is why anarchists are frequently the advocates of structural, democratic changes to trade unions, rather than simply seeking to elect a more radical leadership.

Anarchists have a sophisticated understanding of the role of organisations

From this understanding of prefiguration many anarchists (specifically Platformists and Espicifists) have developed a sophisticated understanding of the role of political organisations with regards to the prefigurative mass organisations that we hope will make the revolution.  Upon writing my own piece on the role of political organisations I was pleased to discover that several similar pieces had already been written, for example this one by José Antonio Gutiérrez.  Unlike say Trotskyists who typically have a confused conception of the “mass party” which is seemingly to be both simultaneously 100% socialist and representative of the working class at large (which is not socialist), Platformists and Espicifists see their organisations as existing to both help build mass organisation and spread their own ideas.  They do not aspire to become “mass” organisations in the way that socialist political parties do as they understand that such organisations are not sufficiently inclusive to represent the entirety of the working class, whatever its politics may be.

Sadly, these views are only held by a small minority of those who call themselves anarchists, however these are none the less positive contributions to understanding that I am grateful to the anarchist movement for.  Like many socialists anarchists are often prone to dogma, and taking the above observations (as well as others that I find less useful) as unflinching rules of nature is certainly something that can be frequently observed amongst social anarchists.  Overall though these observations and understandings can greatly strengthen a socialist analysis.  A focus of prefigurative mass organisation as opposed to electoral activity is hugely important and should enable us to build our new world in the here and now.

A Tale of Two Democracies – Part Two

Read part one here.

Understanding power

“Power flows from the barrel of a gun” said Mao, and whilst in a time of warfare and insurrection this is certainly true, for socialist organisations functioning within western democracies our understanding needs to be a little more nuanced.  At its most simple, power, the ability to direct or influence the course of events, flows from several key interrelated resources: time, money, relationships and legitimacy.  Time and money are often interchangeable, an individual who is wealthy or has at their command the wealth of an organisation can hire underlings who’s time can be used to their own ends.

This time can be used to have a word in the right ears, to phone round everyone before that crucial vote to argue your case, or to build longer lasting relationships which can be called on at a later date when needed.  In this way full time officers in an organisation, even if they have little financial resources, can become very powerful.  Their job will often take them across the country, allowing them to make arguments and build up relationships which can then be utilised when the time comes.  As employees of an organisation full timers also have a greater vested interest in the direction of the organisation, as certain courses of action could result in them losing their job.  This means the full timers not only have the potential to build a lot of power for themselves, but they also have the impetus to use it.

So how can we ensure the power implicit in being a full timer is used to further the collectively agreed interests of the organisation?  Working within the rules and staying within the accepted culture conveys legitimacy to an officer’s actions.  No matter how much time and money an officer has, they are going to find it difficult to get away with blatantly violating the constitution of an organisation, because by default this move is seen as illegitimate.  The same can be said of going outside the established norms of the officer’s position.  An organisation might not have a rule that its general secretary cant employ family members in their office, but this would none the less be frowned upon and difficult to justify as such a move violates the expectations and democratic culture of the organisation.

Clearly however legitimacy is not the be-all and end-all.  Most military coups utterly violate the existing constitutions and accepted democratic process of the countries in which they occur, yet with enough guns (ultimately acquired through time, money and relationships) legitimacy becomes unnecessary.  Equally in our own organisations, where an individual has enough raw power they can typically override democratic process, however this will always be a risky move.

There’s no simple answer to the problem of containing and directing the power of full-timers, but basic oversight such as access to their work diaries, monthly reporting etcetera should be enough to at least keep most of their energies directed at achieving the organisation’s goals rather than their own.

The power of factions

Another potential coup-making force within larger organisations are factions.  Within democratic organisations factions are often loathed.  They have the power to turn routine debates into quagmire and can be hugely destructive to the organisation as a whole.  In spite of this, once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, factions are both inevitable and necessary.

Without factions, be they formal or informal, it is down to unorganised individuals to uphold the democratic structures and culture of the organisation.  If an officer violates the rules its up to individuals to ensure a blind eye is not turned, that rules violations do not become the norm, rendering the constitution redundant.  Whilst unorganised individuals may be sufficient to keep an eye on those in power in small organisations, when organisations get beyond a certain size their voice becomes too weak be be effective.  This is where factions come in.  Those factions that are opposed to those in power have it in their interest to hold those in power rigidly to account.  It will not be in their interest to turn a blind eye.

In using the power of factions to help maintain our democracy, we need to also have a means of ensuring that these factions do not behave in a destructive manner, placing short term factional interest above the longer term interests of the broader organisation.  Again this seems to be a question of creating both structures and culture that can facilitate this.   If a branches number of delegates to the decision making bodies of the organisation is determined by the number of people in a branch, it suddenly becomes in the interest of all factions to be the best builders of the organisation, after all, the more people within the branches where they hold sway, the more votes they will get.

The two democracies

It is for reasons such as accommodating and using the power of factions to maintain democracy that the structure of a democracy can be hugely important.  Additionally we have seen how seemingly democratic methods, such as ballots, may in fact be far less democratic than alternative approaches because they fail to foster a culture of discussion and engagement.  Both of these components are necessary for a genuine democracy to take root, to successfully control and direct the power contained within an organisation.

With a greater understanding of power an democracy we can create better socialist organisations. Traps that previous socialist groups have fallen into can be avoided and confident in our democracy we can focus on the real task in hand, building power for our class.

A Tale of Two Democracies – Part One

In my half-decade on the far left I’ve been involved in a fair few faction fights (always on the right side of course).  As a result I’ve studied a fair few constitutions so as to unearth the technicalities that will lead my chosen side to victory.  These various experiences of different “democracies” within socialist organisations has prompted me to think about what truly constitutes a democracy, and why some organisations that at first appear democratic turn out in fact to be the opposite.

Democracy is of course essential.  Without it, even with the best of intentions, corruption will gradually set in as individuals become more and more socialised into the bureaucracy of an organisation, allowing their vested interests to take precedence over that of the organisation as a whole.  If we want to create a genuine socialism then this has to be based on a genuine democracy, any substitution of such democracy and we risk those individuals who assume power in the name of socialism abusing that power and selling us out.

Democracy then is a means of exerting pressure on a bureaucracy to ensure its interests are in line with those of the electorate.  But what does genuine democracy look like?  Without going in to historical arguments over whether this or that revolution created a genuine, democratic socialism, it seems worthwhile to try to dig beneath the surface and gain a better understanding of this sometimes elusive concept.

A show of hands?

One of the most common tools in the faction-fighters handbook is to claim democratic legitimacy for a given decision because it was taken on the basis of a vote.  Clearly, on a fundamental level this is correct, a vote is a democratic means of making a decision, but just because a decision was reached democratically does not mean that the content of that decision is democratic.  If an organisation was to vote to suspend all its democracy, instilling a single individual as dictator with ultimate power, that organisation would cease to be a democratic one, despite the decision to do so having been taken democratically.

So what are the facets of genuine democracy?  The election of those in power is an obvious key component, and different variables around this will determine how democratic the process is.  For example an officer who is elected annually, who has a strict mandate beyond which they may not stray, and is subject to recall by the electorate at any time, is going to weigh the opinions of the electorate far heavier in his mind than your average member of parliament, elected every five years and unrecallable.

The above procedure is what we might call “structural” democracy, the idealised legalistic form of an organisation’s democracy that is typically encoded in a constitution.   However this alone is not sufficient.

Democratic?

During 2006/7, Scottish Socialist Party conferences were uncontentious affairs.  We had just seen the large factions which had made previous conferences lively events split from the organisation, this left the existing leadership of the SSP utterly uncontested.  Motion after motion was voted through with little debate.  This did not feel like democracy, and indeed it wasn’t.  Though the SSP was hugely structurally democratic (at least relative to other far left political parties) the culture of democracy had disappeared from the organisation1.

Culture of discussion

A culture of democracy is just as important as having formally democratic structures, indeed the latter without the former is no real democracy at all.  If discussions only take place between a handful of officers and are rarely conducted amongst the wider membership then the wider membership will disengage and habitually rely on others to make decisions for them.  A culture of discussion can be difficult to create, in order to make it work a large piece of the puzzle is often having structures that serve to prompt discussion.

On the surface, taking decisions through a ballot of the entire membership  of an organisation is as democratic as it gets.  Every member has an equal say and through the secrecy of the ballot is protected from peer pressure or intimidation.  The underlying assumption of such a ballot is the autonomy of the individual, free to make up his or her own mind as they please.  The problem with this is that the individual is atomised, expected to make up their mind on the basis of their impressions of a situation with which they may not be involved in.  They may have access to the motion and some formalised written debate around it, but few are likely to read it, and fewer still to discuss it at length with their comrades.

The alternative to the ballot is a delegative democracy.  Here each branch of the organisation gets together and discusses the issue in question.  It then takes a vote and mandates its delegate on that basis.  This means that individuals who have not participated in the debate, who are less involved in the organisation, must get themselves more involved in order to have a say.  Whilst for some individuals this may pose problems, branch meetings may be inaccessible to them for some reason, the solution lies in tackling this problem head on, after all, if they cant participate in the basic organs of the organisation then there is a far more fundamental problem.

Clever structures such as delegative democracy don’t make a democratic culture on their own however, after all, there seems little point in turning up to a branch meeting to vote if you are only allowed to vote on minor issues, or if your votes will be worked around and rendered ineffectual by those who wield power within the organisation.  In order to engage people in our democracy we need to ensure that our democratic bodies have a power of their own, and to do this we need an understanding of power.

Read part two here.

[1] Though I left the SSP shortly after this I should point out that it has seemingly become a lot more democratic in terms of organisation-wide discussions of late.

The conservative left

Being socialists, we realise that in order to bring about the social change we seek we need large numbers of people, yet the vast majority of left groups today are small, even when compared with bourgeois political parties, let alone the mass movements of yester-year.  This prompts many thinking leftists to ponder the question of recruitment, how can we grow our organisation or our movement.  Quite naturally we try to look at this question empirically, what has worked for us, where have we recruited from in the past, this approach however, which seems fairly dominant on the left, is flawed.

It may seem tautological, but it is important to realise that the left that exists today is composed of the people who are drawn in by the methodology of the left today, and they are a very small percentage of the population.  This means that whenever we look within our own ranks to discern “what has worked” the answer that will invariably return is “more of the same”.

“We recruited comrades X and Y from that ill-attended public meeting last year, lets do one of those again”, “standing in that election allowed us to sign up ten more comrades, lets do more of that”.

This in-built conservatism (with a small C!) is furthered by the fact that the existing membership are predisposed to like your present methodology, after all it was the basis on which they were recruited, and having being practicing it for the duration of their membership it is well within their comfort zone.

The combination of this inertia with a utter lack of ambition and a focus on short-term gains has ensured that the left has remained marginalised over the past decade.  The obsession with propaganda, often left immeasurable through lack of metric, lest someone realise the ineffectually of the entire approach, I believe, is the primary way this conservatism manifests itself.  That’s not to say propaganda is counter-productive, it is still a “net positive”, its still better to produce it than not, but with our movements resources limited as they are we have to seriously question whether this approach ought to remain our priority, or whether our resources could be better invested elsewhere.

The case for Community Syndicalism

Community organisation has been a staple of socialist activity for centuries, however, unlike workplace activism, community organising has been subject to less attention in terms of theory and strategising. This article will argue that the ideology and practice of workplace syndicalism has many concepts that apply equally to community organisation, and can provide a useful framework in which to operate.

So firstly, what is Syndicalism?  In the workplace syndicalism stands for many things, primarily that workers should ultimately take power in society, using their own organisations, the trade unions, to wield this power.  Syndicalism is also associated with industrial unionism, placing itself in opposition to unions drawing artificial divides between workers based on their skill set.  De-emphasis of parliamentary politics is another key facet of Syndicalism, which instead advocates that major change will be primarily wrought through the struggle of trade unions on economic ground, avoiding political positioning that may alienate sections of the labour movement.

Historically, Syndicalism as a movement reached its peak in the early twentieth century, where its emergence often coincided with waves of  industrial conflict.  In Britain the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, which represented hundreds of thousands of workers, was founded in 1911, at the beginning of the “great unrest” period leading up to the first world war.  Whilst in the UK the Syndicalists eventually became the main opposition to bureaucratic leadership within the Labour movement, in other countries such as France, the Syndicalists were successful in becoming the dominant force in the unions1.  Syndicalism also influenced many of the great socialists of the time including James Connolly, who spent his years in the United States working as an organiser for the Syndicalist union the IWW.

Sadly, the outbreak of the first world war and the rise of Leninism spelt death for much of the syndicalist movement, however its achievements last to this day,  unions having been forced to amalgamate under syndicalist pressure in order to be more effective and shop stewards being empowered within their structures.  Syndicalism was to go on to influence the munitions strikes during world war 1 and the Red Clydeside movement around John Mclean and the Glasgow SLP2.

So can Syndicalism be adapted to community struggles?  Clearly it would be foolish to assume that an ideology developed around industrial struggles must automatically map onto community activism, to examine whether syndicalist ideas are applicable to community struggles, we must first examine the differences between workplace and community organisation.  In its present state, community organisation in the UK is far weaker than workplace organisation.  What bodies do exist, community councils, residents groups and tenants associations, are generally moribund or hopelessly tied into partnership with local councils, whilst having no real mass membership, and hence no genuine claim to represent the communities they originate from.

Within the community the levers of power are also very different from in the workplace.  Classically the withdrawal of labour is seen as the weapon the workers may wield to gain results, this works because such a withdrawal, through strike action, causes their employer to lose money.  If we think about levers in a similarly economic manner in the community, where there is no labour to withdraw, we realise that the obvious means of financial damage is the withholding of rents.  However, issues in the community often centre around service provision rather than being directly related to the land lord, and so levers must also be found that can be used against the local council.  There are several options here, which broadly fall under the category of “direct action”, for example, blocking major roads will have a knock on economic impact about which the council will be concerned.

However, whilst there are clear tactical differences in how day to day struggles may be won, the basic organisational needs in the community and workplace are the same.  Just as in the workplace, in the community working class organisations are best when the are permanent, not temporary and based around single issues as the latter does not allow a body of experience and influence to grow from struggle to struggle.

In the community, ultimately, socialists wish for the working class to take control.  In order for such control to be exercised effectively, the working class needs local organisation as well as workplace organisation, as whilst the running of the economy might naturally be decided upon by workers deliberating in their places of work, it would seem to make little sense to have workplace-based unions decide over which roads need tarmacking in a residential area.

Here to we can borrow from workplace syndicalism, and its models of bottom-up democracy, where geographically disparate groups can federate together and take collective decisions, whilst still remaining accountable to the membership at the base.  As in the workplace, the empowerment of ordinary members to influence decisions that effect the whole organisation, and consequently their community, is a powerful motivator and ensures that corruption can be easily expunged from the organisation.

Of course, such democracy is worthless if not backed up by a unified and hence powerful organisation.  Whilst workers might be divided by craft unionism on the basis of their trade, communities too can be divided organisationally, most frequently along religious lines.  Typically religious groups hold a lot of social capital in communities and religious sectarianism can often be a powerfully divisive force.  Such division is best overcome by finding issues which unite people across these divides, and use said issues to build united, and hence more powerful, organisations.

Politics can also play a similar role to religion both in workplace and community organisations.  Parliamentary politics is a divisive force, there has never been a unified party or political position the whole of the socialist movement and working class has supported.  This was true 100 years ago and even more so today.  Many people find party politics as a whole alienating, with around half of the population not voting, and those who do vote are likely to be disinclined to join a community organisation which allies itself with a party they do not support.

As with in the workplace, this political neutrality does not mean that the union or community organisation ought to abstain from politics, merely that it should enter into politics on the basis of issues around which it can unite its members (initially these will be simple economic demands, higher wages, lower rents etc) and should steer clear of taking sides electorally or ideologically.

However, as sensible as these simple principles may seem, we cannot ignore the fact that syndicalism has had its limitations historically.  There is no point in resurrecting a dead ideology uncritically, as clearly syndicalism’s failure to survive the first half of this century means that it has weaknesses that need to be explored.  In spite of its short life however the Syndicalist movement did empower the labour movement through its emphasis on solid organisational principles and militant action, such an empowerment, both in the community and workplace is needed now more than ever.  Syndicalist ideas as as relevant today as they ever have been, and through their application I believe we can build powerful community organisations capable of challenging the power of the state and bringing socialism to our communities.

1. See the CGT’s Charte d’Amiens

2. Socialist Labour Party, a Deleonist political party heavily influenced by Syndiclaism and central to the Red Clydeside movement

The political organisation and the mass organisation

Whilst organising closely with politically like-minded comrades may seem like an obvious instinct, it is worth evaluating what role a political organisation can or should play.  In this essay I will build a model of working class organisation, as a means of comparing the nature and functions of the political organisation and the mass organisation.  Like all such models, this will be idealised, and more of a statement as to how things perhaps ought to be, than how they are at present.
How mass organisation should relate to political organisations is a key question for socialists as clearly permanent mass organisations are required to sustain and grow class consciousness, and to allow victories to be built upon and turned into further victories.

So what are the key attributes of a coherent political organisation? Tight theoretical and tactical unity are to be expected, with everyone being on the same page and pushing in the same direction.  Because of this, the size of a political organisation is often greatly limited, as there are only so many people out there who believe in whichever specific brand of socialism the organisation defines itself as, and who simultaneously have a shared attitude towards the practical day to day tasks of activism.

In contrast to this is the mass economic organisation, which for most libertarians is the key to the revolution.  This most obviously could be a trade union, however other organisations such as residents groups may also fall under this banner.  As the name suggests, mass organisations are very large in size, but consequently lack a great deal of political coherency.  Another important factor in analysing organisations is their capacity.  A small political group will have little capacity, as this capacity is primarily derived from financial resources and man-hours, however, with collective discipline, its capacity can be increased somewhat.  In contrast mass organisation have large capacity, generally having a lot of funding and human resource available to them, however whether or not this capacity is utilised, and in what direction, is another question.

Some socialists, both in the libertarian and statist camps, believe that the mass organisation should be the political organisation, in other words, they are “partyists”.  A good example of partyism from the statist side is the Scottish Socialist Party, who’s basic strategy is growth.  However, in the Libertarian camp we can also find similar ideas, the most obvious example being the IWA affiliated groups, each of which seeks to build hybrid political/economic mass organisations.

This approach however, can only succeed where either the revolutionary politics of the organisation are de-emphasised  (such as in the case of the SSP) , as most working class people in the UK at least are social democrats and thus unlikely to join a revolutionary organisation, or the political “mass” organisation remains small, such as in the case of IWA affiliates.  It is worth noting at this point that I am observing general trends, and I am sure there are people in both the SSP and IWA who do not think their organisations should work this way.

A more sophisticated approach to mass organisations can be found in both statist and libertarian camps, where the political organisation participates and agitates within the wider mass organisation.  This is the model adopted by most platformist anarchist groups and also many trotskyist groups, at least when it comes to their industrial work.  This model typically means the the political organisation will attempt to engage directly with the mass membership of the economic organisation in which they find themselves.  This model allows the mass organisation to grow and play some role in developing the consciousness in the wider working class, through the implicit strengthening of the class that comes through organisation.

The flaw with this model however is that a small political group still has little capacity, and its constituency, now the membership of the mass organisation rather than the whole of the working class, is still very large and whilst closer to its politics, is still most likely to be social-democratic, therefore the influence of the political organisation is constrained.

Enter the tendency organisation.  The tendency organisation sits in between the political organisation and the mass organisation, both in terms of size, capacity and political coherency.  The tendency allows the political organisation to pursue a subset of its goals with like-minded allies, thus granting it larger capacity.  The tendency also creates a smaller, though politically closer, constituency where the political organisation can hope to wield greater influence and has better prospects of recruitment.

A classic example of a tendency is the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, essentially a syndicalist faction within the wider UK labour movement from 1910-1914, though there are plenty of others.  Sometimes, where appropriate tendencies to not exist, the political organisation may have to set them up from scratch, attempting to find allies throughout the broader mass organisation.  Tendencies may also be multi-layered, with tendencies working within other tendencies to build or reform them.

This model of organisation quite naturally fits in to the ladder of engagement.  Typically the political organisation will want to recruit experienced militants, and obviously those militants should be politically close to the organisation.  Those individuals who start out joining the mass organisation, then a tendency, have already gone on a political and experiential journey, developing their skills and ideas and drawing closer to the political organisation.  It is therefore within these tendencies that recruits are to be found.

In real life of course, things are never quite so simple, and most political organisations, rather than falling neatly into one of the above strategies, alternate between them, at times agitating at the whole of the working class, at times within mass organisations and sometimes in tendencies.  For example, when it comes to propaganda, most socialist groups produce all their own materials, usually aimed at the general public, as ineffectual as that may be due to their limited capacity, instead of distributing propaganda for a mass organisation, which a member of the public is more likely to join, and consequently take their first step on the ladder of engagement.

The same is often true of community work, where rather than trying to build a mass organisation such as a residents group the political organisation will instead set up temporary campaigns, with the only permanent organisation being the political group itself.

Hopefully, the model outlined above can serve some use in understanding how political organisations interact with the working class.  The left’s current partyist trends away from mass organisation work in all but the industrial sphere, and the inadequate use of tendencies and other alliances have contributed greatly to the ineffectualness of the left.  If we change our tactics to account for our limited capacity, I believe we can achieve far more, increasing our capacity many times.