Are you a campaigner or an organiser?

Most people reading this blog will have participated in some form of political campaign.  Indeed campaigns, whether to save the local library or earn workers a living wage, are the bread and butter of left wing activism.   Sometimes these campaigns are won, sometimes lost. Sometimes, all too often in fact, we find ourselves having to fight the same campaign all over again.  Clearly there are many factors that determine the fate of a campaign but crucially only some of those factors are within our power to alter.

Any campaign is made up of the same basic ingredients, popular participation, finance, activists etcetera.  The degree to which a campaign is well funded, its ability to mobilise people and its shrewdness of tactics all have a concrete effect on its outcome.  Most campaigns, whilst often run by seasoned campaigners, find themselves starting from scratch with regards to much of this.  A bank account must be set up and funds raised to populate it.   Activists must be trained in various skills or learn on the job how to manage the media, build demonstrations and negotiate with officials.  Contacts lists must be built and websites must be created.

Naturally these many tasks are time consuming and the better each is performed the more likely the campaign to win.  This is why an organising approach, where individual campaigns are used to build longer-term organisation, can yield far better results.  At the conclusion of any campaign the wealth of experience, knowledge, contacts and finance that has been accumulated typically disappears.  Using campaigns to build permanent organisations such as unions or tenants groups allows campaigners to consolidate the power wrought by their campaign, and gives a stronger base for future victories.

Permanent organisations can also enable more than immediate victories.  When a campaign is won the confidence of those in it and indeed all those who witness it that they too can make positive social change grows.  This confidence can easily dissipate though, without structures in place to nurture and strengthen it.  The left doesn’t have access to mass media to get our message out there, so our strategy must be asymmetric, using organisations to communicate with members brought in through campaigns.  In this way we can consolidate the confidence of participants and solidify it into a general culture of fighting back.

But culture and willingness is only one aspect of out capacity to fight and win.  Power, our ability to effect the course of events, is ultimately derived from how organised we are.  By being able to train activists between campaigns, provide serious finance and to maintain contact networks, organisations like trade unions have real power should they choose to wield it.

Looking at campaigns and organisations is of course only looking at one side of the equation.  In examining why campaigns fail or succeed we also need to examine why it is we find ourselves continually fighting them.  The answer, ultimately, has to be the capitalist system, who’s relentless drive for profits at the expense of all else wreaks destruction on our communities and workplaces.  But just as individual campaigns address individual symptoms of this underlying problem, opposition to capitalism can only oppose the symptoms, the excesses of this system.

This is because opposition in and of itself provides no alternative.  To this day there has been only one coherent alternative presented: socialism.  Socialism proposes tackling capitalism at its roots, in the economy which generates its vast profits.  By bring the economy under the control of the general populace (socialising the means of production to use the Marxist lingo) the capitalists are stripped of their source of power and wealth.  In short, the only way to rid ourselves of capitalism is to bring about socialism.

The pursuit of socialism, the winning of individual campaigns and the building of powerful organisations all fit naturally together.  Any genuinely mass organisation must campaign and win for its members or it will decline, examples of this are only too common.  Individual campaigns , on the other hand, that do not serve to build organisations, risk squandering their resources and experience come victory or defeat.   Ultimately, socialist or not, we need to make ourselves organisers rather than campaigners, building long-term capacity to win and win again.

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.

Concentrating our forces

The left is undeniably weak.  Compared to our capitalist adversaries we have little in the way of finance and none of our organisations are as powerful or organised as the state.  We need to be able to punch above our weight, and to increase our capacity so that eventually our resources enable us to force lasting social change.

So how can we ensure we get maximum bang for our activist buck? An obvious response is to concentrate our meagre forces so that our combined focus and strategy allows us to win things we would not usually be able to.  The opposite of this, a scatter-shot approach, frequently results in resources being spread too thinly and consequently failing to make an impact.

In order to counter this we need to prioritise where we spend our time and money.  Clearly there is a myriad of activities which can aid the socialist cause so we need to be quite picky in deciding what our priorities are.  Of course in marking something as a priority it is implicit that other activities will be deprioritised.  Sometimes this will mean hard choices, but if we aren’t willing to be hard-headed then we can’t expect our movement to get far.

Applying this logic more broadly we should be looking for a systemic solution to the underlying cause of many of the world’s ills; capitalism.  This might mean that sometimes in our bid to fix this underlying problem we don’t go to the most oppressed first. We ought to more strategic and look at how our immediate actions can contribute to changing capitalism, rather than healing its symptoms. In order to help us make these decisions we need some criteria, how can we tell a priority from something less important? One approach is to help those who are most in need, to find the most oppressed and attempt to improve their conditions.  Taking this moral approach to its logical conclusion often leads us down the road of simple charity.  If workers are being paid badly we want to organise them to allow them to demand better wages, not give them some of our own money to alleviate their immediate plight.  In short we look for systemic solutions to underlying problems, in this case a group of workers lack of collective power.

That said, it is worth noting that in order to bring about lasting social change we need to have the majority of the populace on our side.  In order to achieve that we will need to demonstrate that collective action can improve peoples lives in the hear and now.  Whilst looking at what will provide the best challenge to capitalism should be regarded as most important, frequently this will also coincide with aiding those in need.

In addition to looking at the effectiveness of our actions in contributing to the bigger picture, we also need to have an eye out for what will grow our own capacity.   Organising workers not only allows us to remedy an immediate injustice and increase confidence in the effectiveness of collective action, but it also allows us to build on that workplace organisation, encouraging those organised to get involved elsewhere in the movement.

In summary, concentrating our forces is hugely important if the left is to punch above its weight and stand a chance of winning lasting social change.  This involves being hard-headed about what is most effective and is best to build our capacity.  This needn’t be completely heartless however as what is most effective will often also be activity that sees us aiding our fellow workers in improving their lives.

Some ideas for union renewal

In order to create a better world we, the working class, need power.  Such power can only come through collective organisation around the one thing that unites all members of our class – work.  But trade unions, the bodies with which we socialists attempt to create such collective organisation, are in decline.  If we are serious about building trade unions and winning them to socialist ideas then we need to come to the table with ideas of how to reverse this downward trend.

The traditional left wing approach has often been to argue for greater militancy, an approach which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog.  However there are other less obvious but perhaps even more important possibilities for trade union renewal.

Recruit or organise?

One of the obvious places to look for ideas for union renewal is the few success cases of today.  One of the few unions that has grown substantially in the past 10 years is the American behemoth the SEIU.  over the past decade it has succeeded in nearly doubling its membership to a staggering 2.1 million.  This has been in spite of the incredibly hostile conditions of industrial relations within the USA.

So how did the SEIU achieve this against-the-odds success? It looked to the Australian movement the organising methodology it had adopted to raise its own membership figures, the organising model.  Now both the left and the trade union movement in the UK like to talk about organising.  For the trade unions “organising” often simply means recruitment, handing out union membership forms, whilst for the far left “organising” only really seems to translate as party or front building.

The organisng model on the other hand sets up organising as an approach that is rather different to traditional union “servicing” and recruitment.   The approach of this model is to map workplaces and conduct surveys to find out what issues the workers there are most concerned about.  An issue is then selected and a campaign run to get a victory.  Through building by starting small and working up the self confidence of the workers and the standing of the union can be steadily improved.

What’s more the organising model can be far more confrontational than the servicing/recruitment approach, with strikes (such as the successful Sodexo workers strike resulting from UNISON’s attempt to implement the model) a fairly common tactic to gain results.  With such demonstrable effectiveness and the possibility for militant outcomes you’d think the far left would be raving about this new approach, yet the far left has virtually nothing to say on this new methodology.

This is in part the fault of the far left for not taking sufficient interest in workplace issues.   Such an attitude has left as the sole champions of organising certain factions with the union bureaucracies and consequently a conservative vision and practice of organising dominates.  Whilst using militant tactics might be a great way to force reluctant employers to recognise your union and to build your membership numbers, once you’ve done a deal with that employer you don’t want pesky members messing it up by trying to win more.

In order to prevent this being the reality of organsing the left needs to engage with and learn this new model.  Of course as many lefties will point out large elements of the model aren’t new, they’re a historical rediscovery of how unions used to work.  This is only part of the picture though, old-school militancy has been complemented by modern organising techniques, making the organising model a powerful tool.

Union culture

Larkin loved a good picnic

Another incredibly useful tool is that of trade union culture. When the union is the centre-point of cultural and social activities for its members it will be rendered far stronger.  After all your much more likely to go down and support the picket line if your mate Bob, who you met through the union football tournament is one of those on strike.  The central importance of the union as a social institution was realised by Jim Larkin, who as leader of Ireland’s syndicalist union, the ITGWU, organised union picnics and other cultural activities that greatly contributed to the early successes of this new union.

Another syndicalist union, the CGT in France, used similar tactics.  Through its Bourse Du Travail localised structures the union would provide services and a social space to working class communities, building up popular support for the union and encouraging members to socialise together.  Sadly such locality based organising is more difficult today as workers in one workplace are unlikely to all live in the same locality, however in spite of this the comrades in the Comités Syndicalistes Révolutionnaires are having some success at reconstructing a local CGT presence.

Whilst on the left we often regret the demise of union clubs and the centrality of unionism in working class life we would do well to head  the old socialist adage: don’t mourn, organise!  This social infrastructure can be rebuilt, starting small and building up, but it is up to us to ensure that this happens.

If the working class is to stand a chance it must be organised thoroughly to assert its collective power.  The techniques of the organsing model and the strengthened social bonds that come through a trade union culture are two vital tools in this task.

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.


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.