What Kind of Socialist Organization?

by David McNally

A discussion document prepared for the New Socialist Conference March 3, 1996. Adopted in principle.

Table of Contents

I. Socialism from Below and the Organization Question

II. Organizing as Activists and Socialists

III. Organizing around a Socialist Publication

IV. The Politics of Socialism from Below Today

V. First Steps in a New Direction

VI. Some Thoughts on Structure and Procedure

I. Socialism from Below and the Organization Question

The socialism from below perspective poses the question of organization in a unique way. In so doing, it distinguishes itself from the three main approaches which exist on the left. It may be useful to review these other approaches as a way of spelling out our own.

The first approach is the dominant one—the parliamentary-reformist model which fashions its mode of organization on the need to create a mass electoral party whose focus is on winning control of parliament. In this model, the exploited and oppressed are reduced to largely passive supporters (voters) who are meant to “buy” the campaign images and slogans of the reformist party. An elite of professional politicians and trade union officials are seen as the active agents of social change; the majority are at best footsoldiers.

Second, there is the variety of far-left approaches which are best described as sectist. In the sect model, usually based upon ludicrous caricatures of the Bolshevik experience in Russia, a tiny number of committed revolutionaries declare themselves the “vanguard” of the working class movement. This group believes itself to be the true-leadership-in-waiting of the working class. Convinced that it possesses the magic solution to “the riddles of history,” the vanguardist sect nurtures grandiose delusions of self-importance. It tends to replace genuine theoretical analysis with dogmatic slogans (who needs analysis when you’ve got everything solved in advance, after all) and it replaces open, democratic discussion and debate with the giving of a “line” cooked up by a “leadership” that has no real base in any mass movement. While the sect can often have a fanatical staying power and a highly dedicated membership, its rigidity, dogmatism and fanaticism deprive it of the capacity to ever develop into a genuine mass organization.

Finally, there is a variety of approaches that are best characterized as spontaneist. Spontaneism essentially disavows responsibility for socialist organization by declaring that everything will be sorted out spontaneously by the working class and oppressed groups—some day, some time. Spontaneism is fatalistic in character; it calls on people to await some grand historic moment when a great, almost mystical, break-through will occur. Anarchism is the most clearly developed version of such spontaneism, since it is generally hostile in principle to any kind of commitment to building an organization.1

The socialism from below approach differs from all of the above. In contrast to the parliamentary reformists, we hold that a revolutionary transformation of society can only be achieved through the mass struggle of the majority. Socialism requires the self-activity and the self-emancipation of the oppressed and exploited. At the same time, we believe that the rebellious forces of the working class and the oppressed need a mass party of a new type—a democratic, revolutionary party that can coordinate their activities in struggling against the old order.

While the sectists generally reject reformism and argue for a revolutionary party, they slide into an elitism of their own in which the select few, the true believers, the self-proclaimed vanguard are the key actors in the historical process. All that is necessary, they suggest, is to build their organization today and everything will work out. However much they may pay lip-service to the Marxist principle of working class self-emancipation, the sectist group drifts inevitably away from socialism from below as it comes to see the whole historical struggle revolving around itself, not the self-mobilization of the working class.

The spontaneists, on the other hand, “solve” the problem of organization by making it disappear. Rather than grapple with the real difficulties of how to build a revolutionary socialist current which doesn’t fall into reformism or sectism, they simply advise us to drop the problem entirely. Once again, the agency of people is eliminated—this time because we merely have to wait for “History” to sort things out spontaneously. Yet, as Engels argued 150 years ago, “History does nothing; it ‘possesses no colossal riches,’ it ‘fights no battles’! Rather it is the human being, the actual and living human, who does all this, who possesses and fights.”2

The problem of socialist organization begins when we refuse fatalism, when we accept that active socialists need to find some way to come together to increase their effectiveness—as both activists and socialists.

II. Organizing as Activists and Socialists

This last point is decisive. For, the key challenge is to find a way to be effective activists and socialists within the struggles and movements of the day. This is easier said than done; it is much easier to be one or the other.

To be a pure and simple activist is quite straightforward. One simply joins a campaign or coalition and helps to build its actions. However worthy these might be—and often they are extremely worthy—such an approach does little to build socialist consciousness about the nature of the society in which we live and what is truly needed to transform it.

The opposite side of the coin is the organized socialist who is effectively outside the movement. This individual relates to the struggle as a diversion at worst (the ultra-sectarian approach) or as a convenient means to the “real” end (building his or her group). The actual struggle of the moment is not seen as intrinsically important; its importance lies in providing a recruiting ground for the socialist sect.

The approach we seek is radically different. We want to find a way of operating as sincere, principled and constructive socialist activists within the movements. To that end, we want to insist upon the intrinsic importance of the struggles for their contribution to building self-activity, mobilizing and politicizing people, and winning real gains. At the same time, we want to operate as open socialists who discuss our political ideas, distribute our leaflets and publications, invite people to our meetings, and, in so doing, strengthen socialist consciousness and organization.

Engels outlined what this approach meant in the context of the democratic revolutionary upsurge in Germany in 1848. Explaining his and Marx’s decision to launch a left-wing democratic paper (the Neue Rheinische Zeitung) and how it positioned itself within the struggle, he wrote:

"When we founded a wide-circulation paper in Germany its slogan presented itself automatically. It could only be the slogan of democracy but one that emphasized everywhere and in detail its specifically proletarian character which it could not yet inscribe on its banner once and for all. If one refused this, if we were unwilling to join the movement on its most progressive and proletarian wing there was nothing left but for us to preach Communism in a small corner magazine and found a small sect"3

Two things are crucial here. First, Engels talks about joining the movement (i.e., not standing apart from it and preaching at it)—but joining it “on its most progressive and proletarian wing.” Secondly, he argues for taking up the basic slogan of the movement—in this case the struggle for “democracy” in mid-19th century Germany—while emphasizing “everywhere and in detail” that only the seizure of political power by the working class could genuinely win this struggle. Here we have a classic formulation of the socialism from below approach: operating as committed activists, but activists who are on the left-wing of the movement, who are emphasizing “everywhere and in detail” the need for working class struggle and socialist perspectives.

Developing this point in a description of Marx’s approach to the trade unions, Hal Draper, one of the major theorists of socialism from below, wrote:

"Socialists should act as a loyal left-wing of the class movement, not an alternative counterposed to it; they should start with the working class as it is and where it is in order to change it; they should be part of its real class organizations no matter how backward the mass might be from their standpoint; and they should become the best militants for the limited aims of the movement-as-is. But at the same time, and through this association, they seek to push the whole movement upwards to higher levels of class-struggle commitment and consciousness by means of the lessons of experience, all without giving up or hushing up their own full views or ceasing to criticize mistaken or ineffective policies."4

III. Organizing around a Socialist Publication

It is instructive that in the example taken from 1848 above, I referred to the newspaper Marx edited at the time—the ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung.’ Marx and Engels strongly believed was that while operating within the movement socialists needed a way of broadly disseminating their unique position in the struggle. Otherwise, they would tail behind the existing leadership of the movement rather than offer a distinctly socialist perspective. It’s arguable, in fact, that it is impossible for socialists to operate on an open and principled basis without a publication. Every time one thinks of revolutionary socialists operating in the midst of important struggles, they are linked to a publication: Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Lenin and Iskra (Spark) in the early years of the Bolshevik movement and Pravda (Truth) during the years of the coming revolution, Rosa Luxemburg and Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) in Germany in 1918-19, Antonio Gramsci and L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order) during the strikes and factory occupations of 1919-20 in Italy.

A publication is vital because it can perform several key tasks. First, it is a means of disseminating socialist ideas, analysis, and proposals for action. Second, it can provide a forum for discussion and debate for a whole layer of militants and activists. Third, it can help generalize experience by enabling one group of workers and oppressed people to see how their experience compares with that of other groups. Finally, it can become the means for linking together the ideas, experiences and activities of a whole number of people so that they might maximize their effectiveness as socialist activists within the struggle.

Because it is public by nature, a publication makes the idea of a socialist current concrete—it gives it a face, a shape, an identity. Rather than saying one belongs to a seemingly mysterious group which most people have never heard of, one presents a publication which is oriented outwards, which is designed to relate to and engage with the real experiences of large numbers of people. A publication is central to the “coming out” of socialists with their co-workers, fellow students, other activists, and so on. It enables us to give a concrete shape to our involvement in a socialist group (“we organize around this magazine”).

IV. The Politics of Socialism from Below Today

Thus far, I have laid out some general ideas about how those in the tradition of socialism from below approach the question of organizing. Now we need to look more concretely at the situation of socialism from below activists in Canada (and most parts of the world) today. Let’s begin with four basic observations.

First, it has been more than 50 years since Marxist politics have claimed any meaningful support from a “vanguard” of the working class (i.e. from thousands of militant, class conscious working people). There is thus a gap or break in the historical tradition of the revolutionary socialist left.

As a result of this, Marxist groups have been thoroughly marginalized for decades.

It follows, secondly, that the problem confronting radical socialists is not that of organizing a vanguard of militant workers into an organization. That vanguard is not there waiting for organization; instead, such an advanced layer of workers will have to be created through its own struggles. As Duncan Hallas wrote some 25 years ago, “in human terms, an organised layer of thousands of workers, by hand and by brain, firmly rooted amongst their fellow workers and with a shared consciousness of the necessity for socialism, has to be created.”5

To fail to recognize this, to believe that one simply has to wave the red flag for workers to come running to it, is an error which has plagued the far-left since the 1930s.

The third thing we need to recognize is that the “new left” created by the mass struggles of the period 1964-76 has largely collapsed. While a handful of significant organizations have survived (with various strengths and weaknesses), most of the surviving groups have failed to come to terms with the mistakes made by the left during that period. Most of the groups that remain are firmly entrenched in the sectist form of organization and show little capacity for fresh, dynamic development.6

Finally, it is vital to understand that real possibilities for socialist organizing have been created by the “new political period” which has opened up since 1989—encompassing in particular the democratic revolutions in East European, the release of Nelson Mandela and the formation of an ANC government, the opposition to the Gulf War, the electoral instability and bursts of mass protest (e.g. Italy, 1994; France 1995; and, on a much smaller scale, Ontario 1995-96) produced by the recession of 1989-92 and the intensifying war against social programs. Recognizing that there is a new period of sorts does not require holding to the ludicrous idea that we have returned to a 1930s-style crisis of capitalism, or that we are in a period of “mass radicalization” in which a revolutionary group can become a small mass party in a handful of years.7

The situation in which Marxists find themselves today is thus highly complex. On the one hand, there is a new political questioning among thousands of people in the midst of a renewal of social protest, and out of this combination a new audience for socialist politics is being created. On the other hand, the socialist left is terribly weak and small, most groups are sectarian caricatures of authentic Marxist politics, and the impact of socialist politics on the new struggles is quite minimal.

In this context, what is needed is to move towards a socialist group which is politically principled, vigorously anti-sectist, and open and democratic in both its internal life and the way in which it works with others.

V. First Steps in a New Direction

What the left needs at the moment is a real breath of fresh air. It needs a new departure which is sharply differentiated from the three traditions outlined at the start of this document (parliamentary reformism, sectism, and spontaneism). New Socialist and the groups affiliated to it hope to embody such a new direction. Yet, we must be extremely modest about our resources and our accomplishments (on this point see the editorial “A Radical Voice in the Struggle,” New Socialist #2, March-April 1996). While maintaining a modest sense of proportion, we must nevertheless try to move as far as we can towards creating a group that strikes a balance between principled Marxist politics and a very open type of organization. Let’s spend a moment on the second part of this equation.

The socialist sectlets are plagued by a fundamental problem: the other-worldly demands they place on members to bear their (increasingly messianic) responsibilities makes the sectlet uninhabitable for the vast majority of people who are active on the left. Ironically, this was pointed out by Duncan Hallas and Tony Cliff in a letter nearly 20 years ago. Writing to an American group (then called the International Socialists), they argued: "Great levels of sacrifice are demanded from your comrades… and for a time things might even hold together. Sooner or later, however, they fall apart. Quite simply, the greater the differentiation the sect draws between the sacrificing member and ordinary people, the fewer genuine people it recruits."8

The problem for the type of group we seek to build is to maintain principled politics (which differentiate it politically) while adopting a style and method of organization that makes it very easy for people to work with and/or join the group. It’s with this in mind that New Socialist has put such a stress on interviews with serious people on the left (Ellen Meiksins Wood, Lynne Segal), guest contributions (Howard Adams, Bruce Allen), and with trying to sponsor meetings that pull sections of the left together—e.g. the Ottawa meeting of 60 people co-sponsored by New Socialist and Octopus Books which featured speakers from the NDP, the Communist Party, the Council of Canadians and Ottawa New Socialists on “What Will it Take to Beat Mike Harris?” Our “new direction” on the left must be more than rhetoric—it must be part of the actual practice of the group and the way it works with other individuals and organizations.

The new direction must also consist of the development of a real and meaningful political culture of democratic discussion and disagreement. There must be a complete break from heresy-hunting, hectoring, and a bullying style of debate. A fresh, engaged socialist group does need positions on lots of questions (do we advocate a vote for the NDP, what do we say about a Qubec referendum, should we call for a general strike against Harris, and so on). But at the same time, it must arrive at those positions through a genuinely participatory process of discussion, it must welcome a diversity of views, and it must tolerate members’ right to dissent over things that are not matters of fundamental principle.9

The group must breathe the fresh air of lively debate and discussion; and it must carry that over into its involvement with others.

VI. Some Thoughts on Structure and Procedure

The key question about structure should always be “structure to do what?” One of the things that plagues sectlets is their use of models torn out of historical context—such as the organizational guidelines for mass parties developed by the Communist International in the early 1920s. The result is a thoroughly mechanistic approach to socialist organization lacking any organic connection to the practical problems of real people in concrete circumstances. In breaking with the rigid and dogmatic approach of the sectists, we need to affirm that the practical tasks we set ourselves should determine what sort of structures we need. With this in mind, let’s begin with our tasks.

We’ve started by defining our group in terms of active commitment to the politics of socialism from below. We’ve decided to produce a magazine, hold meetings, and participate in significant movements and struggles (February 7 student day of action, labour protests in Hamilton, student elections at York U, International Women’s Day, and so on). To that end, we need effective and accountable structures that enable us to do what we commit ourselves to doing. Structure should thus make us effective—it should give us mechanisms for actually doing what we set out to accomplish. At the same time, these structures must be based upon the principle of democratic accountability—the designation of people to do specific political tasks (edit and produce a publication, organize meetings and activities, coordinate finances) should be based on election and subject to direction by regular meetings of the membership.10

There are two basic levels at which questions of structure then arise: 1) local group (or branch) level; 2) the level of the national organization. Let’s take each in turn. At the local group level, it seems clear that we need basic routines of work with respect to meetings, magazine sales, involvement in activities, and finances (NS sales and membership dues collection). Most local groups of more than eight or ten members are likely to need some kind of elected coordinating committee to take responsibility for different areas of work. But it seems clear that no formula is especially helpful here; groups will have to learn through their own experience and through the sharing of experiences with other local groups.

We come now to the level of the national organization of groups affiliated to New Socialist. Again, we want to maximize effectiveness and accountability while minimizing grandiose self-importance. In particular, we want to avoid the ludicrous situation of some small groups of a few dozen members who somehow manage to create Central Committees, Political Committees, National Executives, Labour Committees, Women’s Commissions, and so on. Such structures are pretentious for small groups; they are defined by abstract models and not by the concrete problems of organizing to be an effective socialist presence within the struggles of the day.

With this in mind I put forward three basic organizational proposals for the moment. First, that the highest decision-making body of the organization shall consist of aggregate meetings (convention, national organizing committee) at which every member in good standing has full voice and vote. Second, that at least once annually such an aggregate meeting shall elect an editorial board for New Socialist. Third, that such meetings shall also elect a national executive committee charged with preparation and organization of national meetings (including the dissemination of discussion documents), communication with local groups, coordination of national political campaigns, and organizing national finances.

Many of the concrete, operational elements of these guiding proposals will have to be worked out practically as our group develops. In abandoning abstract models and formulas, we must be prepared to encourage a fair bit of experimentation and improvisation. If we are prepared to take seriously our commitment to learning from real experience, then we will develop our organizational structures and procedures empirically over time. We should welcome the open-endedness of such an approach. For, as Lenin was fond of quoting the German philosopher Hegel, “The truth is concrete.”

"The masses must have time and opportunity to develop, and they can have the opportunity only when they have a movement of their own—no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement—in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn to profit by them.

I think that all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organization..."
—Frederick Engels11


1: In practice, however, anarchist groups often tend towards authoritarianism with a tiny group of schemers convinced that they will produce a breakthrough with valiant moral action by a righteous minority. Anarcho-syndicalism does believe in a form of organization—the one big union—but falters when it comes to the question of state power (see Tom Keefer, “Marxism versus Anarchism,” New Socialist #2, March-April 1996).

2: From “The Holy Family” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (eds.) (New York: Anchor Books) p. 385. I have changed “man” to “human being” and “human” in the translation of this passage.

3: As quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1973) p. 201

4: Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume II: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978) p. 121

5: Duncan Hallas, “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party” in Party and Class (London: Pluto Press, 1972?) p. 9

6: The most significant far-left groups are probably the Socialist Workers party in Britain (membership around 9,000) and Lutte Ouvriere in France (members and organized supporters probably around 4,000). While the SWP is a healthier political tendency by far, it has a whole number of sectist features and has aggressively encouraged and promoted sectism in the international tendency of the small groups it directs. At the same time, as revolutionary groups with a few thousand reasonably-rooted working class activists, such organizations may have the capacity for real development when the class struggle moves forward to a higher level.

7: See the critique of such ideas in Declaration of the Political Reorientation Faction, available from New Socialists.

8: Duncan Hallas and Tony Cliff, Letter to the International Socialists (United States), March 7, 1977, p. 4

9: Blatant racism, sexism and homophobia, for example, should be incompatible with membership, as should opposition to trade unions, to take some obvious examples.

10: I emphasize membership democracy here. Democratic decision-making is the prerogative of members (and not supporters or sympathizers) in order to insure that we are an activist democracy. To completely blur the distinction between members and non-members is to slip into a mode of operation in which active commitment is not expected of those who make the group’s decisions. Once you do that, you no longer have a group which is defined by activism—i.e. you are on your way to becoming a simple talk shop.

11: Frederick Engels, “Letter to F.A. Sorge,” November 29, 1886 and “Letter to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky,” January 27, 1887 in Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence (2nd. ed.) (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965) pp. 396, 400.