SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 118 - May 2008

Students and the class struggle

Document submitted by the University of Sussex Socialist Cub to the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation national conference, November 1968

THE EVENTS OF the last year have made it more than ever apparent that society the world over is rotten-ripe for change in the direction of socialism. The March demonstrations in Poland, the upheaval in Czechoslovakia, and signs of ferment in all the East European states, indicate the deep crisis in the Stalinist states. The May-June events in France, coming out of an apparently blue sky, shattered the facade of a stable, impregnable European capitalism. The expansion of world trade, the basis of relatively harmonious relations, is slowing down: all the main capitalist states are meeting increasing difficulties in solving their problems, at home and internationally. At the same time, the strength, cohesion and confidence of the working class have been immeasurably increased. Following the colonial revolutions that have been unleashed against capitalism during the last twenty years, these are the signs that the conditions are being prepared for titanic class struggles on the world arena.

Mass action by students in country after country is for socialists a significant expression of the direction in which the class forces internationally are moving. The action of the French students showed the way to the workers, and the impact of the events that followed created for the first time the possibility of a mass student movement in Britain also.

The RSSF had its immediate origin in this wave of radicalisation. It has yet to be given shape and direction. This is not merely a question of setting up an organisational structure, but of working out clear perspectives on which the RSSF will be able to intervene as they unfold.

The role of the working class

AS THE CRISIS develops on a world scale, the working class is again being brought to the fore as the progressive force in society. The rapid exhaustion of the workers’ patience with the parasitic bureaucracies in Eastern Europe places the resurrection of Lenin’s programme of workers’ democracy on the order of the day. In the West, the mass action of ten million French workers has shown again the enormous power of the class when it begins to move. The Marxist conception of the key role of the workers of the developed countries as the big battalions in the world struggle for socialism has been strikingly confirmed. The ideas represented by Herbert Marcuse and company that the workers have been ‘bought off’, ‘integrated’ into the capitalist system as passive consumers, have been unceremoniously shattered,

It is easy now to dismiss Marcuse as a misguided professor. But his ideas were merely one brand among many. Isolation of the decimated revolutionary forces during the boom period had a disastrous effect, even on part of the ‘Marxist’ left. Any number of ideas which reflected a loss of confidence in the ability of the working class to move to change society became endemic in the socialist movement. Embarrassed theorists are now anxious to disown ideas that the workers have been ‘integrated’, that capitalism has developed ways of stabilising itself, staving off crisis and so on. All very good. But it is essential vigorously to reject the intellectual lumber of the past period. Failure to do so will inevitably result in the outlook of student socialists being distorted by false perspectives.

Disillusioned with the workers’ movement in the West, a number of quasi-Marxists looked towards the colonial liberation struggles in the so-called ‘Third World’ for salvation. The colonial revolution is indeed proof of capitalism’s inability to develop society further on a word scale. But it is one thing to support these struggles as progressive movements against rotten feudal-capitalist regimes and imperialism, and quite another to see them as having in some way ‘replaced’ the struggle of the industrial workers of the world. Socialism cannot be achieved in isolation under conditions of chronic backwardness: the key to the world revolution is inevitably in the developed economies. Refusal to face up to this during a difficult period led to a one-sided view of the revolution in the under-developed countries. Because of the dynamic character and successes of these struggles (in contrast to the West) and the kudos of a number of guerrilla leaders, the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare have had a romantic appeal for many students. This has had a serious effect in confusing the outlook of many socialist students.

Few socialists would claim that the future of society depends on students. But that is the implication of many theories at present circulating in the student movement. If the working class is seen as an inert mass, the forces to change society have to come from somewhere else. Some look to the ‘Third World’. Marcuse, Theodore Adorno and co [representatives of the ‘Frankfurt school’ of ‘Western Marxism’] came up with the idea that students and intellectuals, through reaching a critical understanding of capitalist society, could ‘break the silence’, ‘shatter the facade’ (etc) and set the revolution in motion. They overlook that (as is being shown at present) the intelligentsia in general acts as a seismograph, registering the movement of the forces beneath the surface of society. In any case, what happened to the ‘critical theories’ of Marx and Engels (not to mention Lenin and Trotsky)? Students could participate in the socialist movement as independent contributors. But first they will have to achieve a clearer understanding than this school of ‘critical sociologists’ of the role of the intelligentsia and of the way the workers move.

The idea that students can initiate revolutionary action by ‘detonation’ also flows from an exaggerated conception of the significance of students as a strata in society. Events in France, where students showed the way of action, gave a semblance of truth to the idea. But as the abortive attempts of the German SDS (Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund) to do the same thing showed, if the conditions have not been prepared and the mood does not exist among the workers, no amount of ‘detonation’ will set them off. The misconception underlying this notion (connected with the glorification of guerrilla warfare) is that the socialist revolution is simply a question of insurrection, of revolutionary technique. Students show how it is done, provoking the state into ‘exposing itself’, and the workers suddenly see the way to change society, entering into combat with the bourgeois state. The ‘detonators’ latch onto the form of the socialist revolution, but grasp none of its content.

For scientific perspectives

THE IDEAS AND programme of socialism are the generalised expression of the working class struggle under capitalism. The fact that capitalism has historically only a limited ability to raise the productive level of society, and in periods of crisis inevitably attempts to solve its problems at the expense of the workers, objectively poses the need for a socialist transformation of society. But revolutions do not drop out of the skies, nor are they accomplished immediately by a single act. It obviously requires exceptional circumstances to tear the chains of conservatism from the workers’ discontent. But the ‘exceptional circumstances’ are prepared by society itself. In the last analysis, the dynamics of the workers’ struggle flow from the movement of the capitalist economy, ultimately the world economy. And the general lines of the struggle, even the turns in events, are laid down in advance by historically determined conditions.

It is evident that, at the present time, the small numbers of people claiming to be revolutionary socialists cannot hope to influence the general direction things will take. It is entirely otherwise in a period of revolutionary movement when rapid and intense changes in class psychology take on decisive importance. But the events required to provoke a revolutionary upheaval are outside the making of handfuls of revolutionaries. It is therefore a prerequisite of revolutionary activity that we arrive at a clear understanding of the relationship of class forces and the direction in which they are moving.

There is no question of laying down a mechanical schema for future developments. But using the Marxist method it is possible to make a prognosis of the way in which things will develop. Possible variations must be kept in mind. But only if we make a bold prognosis which we are prepared to put to the test of events, will we have a basis for serious strategy and tactics. It is also necessary, drawing on past experience and analysis of political relations, to work out in advance the way in which the masses will move under the impulse of events.

The idea has been put forward that action alone can generate consciousness, break down barriers, bring students and workers together. All experience points to the opposite: to the need for worked-out perspectives. Failing this, socialists would meet developments hopelessly disorientated.

‘Spontaneity’ and the workers’ organisations

THE PRESENT MOVEMENT amongst the students in Britain is certainly spontaneous in the sense that it was provoked by events and arose without being planned or organised. But it would be entirely wrong to conclude from this that a viable socialist student organisation can be built through ‘spontaneous action’. This would mean that students would come and go with the ebb and flow of events without being drawn into a consistent political struggle. Action yes – but action for what?

What is ‘spontaneity’ anyway? Many struggles are set off by incidents without being prepared in advance. Nevertheless, however ‘spontaneous’, every struggle involves people who take the initiative, give direction. The important point is: do they give the right direction, where are they taking the struggle? Insistence on the ‘spontaneous’ nature of struggles invariably conceals an inability, or an unwillingness to provide serious answers to these questions. And in relation to the workers’ movement, it more often than not betrays a completely false approach.

Exponents of ‘spontaneous struggle’ are invariably led into counterposing ‘rank-and-file struggles’, ‘do-it-yourself reforms’ (etc) to the struggle to build a mass left wing in the organised labour movement. The two forms of struggle are not incompatible. Socialists have a duty to support every progressive movement. But at the same time it is important to realise that organs of struggle such as tenants’ committees, unofficial strike or liaison committees, and so on, arise concretely on specific issues. Unless the militancy generated through these ad hoc organisations is broadened and consolidated through the mass organisations, it will remain purely episodic.

Standing apart from the mass organisations, students are readily inclined to write off the mass organisations (the trade unions and the Labour Party) as ‘bureaucratic structures’ with no part to play in revolutionary developments. In reality the situation is not so simple: the mass organisations have a dual character which must be understood.

It is undoubtedly true that the very strength of the labour movement provides a basis for bureaucratisation and a tendency for the tops to be tied into the state. But the role of the labour ‘leaders’ depends on the actual relationship of forces. In the post-war period the labour bureaucracy has been incapable of ‘policing’ the workers to the extent that it did in the pre-war years. The frequency and confidence with which the rank-and-file have taken unofficial action in the boom period is an indication of the strength of the mass organisations, not of their weakness. Despite the present political complexion of many union leaderships, the trade unions remain powerful embodiments of the class instincts of the workers. Already we are seeing a shift to the left. And it can be predicted with certainty that as capitalism begins to reproduce its characteristic crisis conditions the workers will in general turn to the organisations which they built up over decades of struggle against such conditions. This poses problems for revolutionaries that are by no means simple.

In a period of revolutionary development the labour ‘leaders’ would, as in the past, adopt a left pose to try to maintain their position at the head of the movement. While they may become enmeshed in the state apparatus, their position in the last resort depends on their defending the workers’ interests. But the fact that they regard the trade unions and the Labour Party as ends in themselves means that they inevitably attempt to confine the struggle to the limits of the capitalist structure. The task of revolutionaries lies precisely in carrying this struggle over into a fundamental transformation of society. This cannot be done by disassociating oneself from the bureaucracy as an act of personal salvation, of insisting on a pure, spontaneous struggle unpolluted by organisational structures.

We find in practice that spontaneous, rank-and-file struggle is an abstraction which relieves would-be revolutionaries of the necessity of facing up to the real problems. The relative prosperity of the past period, the ease with which the workers have been able to make gains, has had an effect on the shop-floor organisations also. Many shop stewards are politically backward, to a greater or lesser extent ‘boss’s men’. This in the last analysis is the basis for the bureaucratisation of the movement as a whole. But it is a reflection of the level of participation in union activity, of the level of consciousness as it is. Revolutionaries have to start at this level and attempt to raise it. It is no use saying to the workers: ‘support us or be sold out’. It is rather a question of seriously taking up the day-to-day demands of the workers and attempting to show their incompatibility with capitalist limitations, their inseparable connection with a socialist programme. We are entering a period when practically every struggle in industry raises fundamental questions of the control of production and the state. Insofar as the workers do not grasp the necessity of implementing a socialist programme they remain under the sway of the employing class and its political representatives. But the correctness of the programme and the reliability of those fighting for it has to be proved in the workers’ own experience. This cannot be done by descending from the skies on the eve of the revolution with a gospel of spontaneity more appropriate to the struggle at the time of Luddism and vitriol-throwing than the conditions of present-day class society.

We note again the serious consequences of a romantic attitude towards the revolution in the colonial world. Starting from small beginnings, a guerrilla struggle may, under certain conditions, draw wider and wider layers spontaneously into a struggle against the existing regime. But this is essentially the character of a peasant movement. The peasantry is moved to fight by common social grievances, but because of their primary interest in their individual land holdings are incapable of action as a class. Never has the peasantry created a political leadership of its own. Given the inability of the still-born colonial bourgeoisie to find a way forward and the weakness of the workers in the under-developed countries in the present period, leadership of the peasantry has almost invariably devolved on bonapartist leaders whose direction is determined by the correlation of forces. The essence of the role of the working class lies in the necessity of its transforming society collectively – as a class. And this presupposes a consciousness of the tasks before it. Those who attempt to apply the concepts of guerrilla warfare to the urban societies of capitalism have not understood the first thing about the physiology of the socialist revolution.

The socialist programme & revolutionary leadership

IF THE EXPERIENCE of the past fifty years has confirmed the key role of the working class, it has also shown that the movement of the masses is not in itself enough to achieve socialism. A transformation on socialist lines presupposes a revolutionary programme and a revolutionary party capable of organising the class behind that programme.

In February 1917 the tsarist autocracy was overthrown by a massive advance of the Russian workers and peasants. None of the general conditions for a bourgeois-democratic regime had been established in Russia: yet the immediate outcome of the revolution was a bourgeois government headed by the Mensheviks. This was in spite of the fact that in many cases it was the cadres of the Bolshevik party who led the workers in the factories and local committees, and despite the fact that workers’ power was an established fact. Because of the superiority of their press, the greater number of public speakers, their standing in official politics, the Mensheviks still held sway in the political arena. The workers had yet to draw the necessary conclusions from their position of power. It required the organised intervention of the Bolshevik party in the process of the active orientation of the masses to events to win mass support for a programme that would guarantee the gains of the revolution – the programme of workers’ power.

The lessons of October were confirmed in a negative – and tragic – manner by the German, Chinese and Spanish revolutions. Time and again the workers took the road to revolution, seizing power into their hands. But in the absence of revolutionary parties with clear, resolute programmes (combined with the treacherous role of the so-called ‘Communist’ and ‘Socialist’ leaders) the workers were in each case thwarted and then put down in blood.

A revolutionary programme cannot be thrown up spontaneously by events. This does not mean to say that it is merely something thought up by people with some sort of special inspiration. The programme of Marxism represents the crystallised experience of the working class throughout its whole history of struggle. From this follows the need for the most active, conscious members of the workers’ movement to educate themselves in the ideas and methods represented by the programme in order to play a guiding role as events unfold. It goes without saying that this requires serious education and theoretical work, a consistent effort to strengthen the Marxist vanguard. Theory is an indispensable guide to action, but it cannot be correctly developed apart from active intervention in the class struggle.

Perhaps the greatest danger for revolutionaries at the present time is for them to fall under the delusion that they themselves can build a left wing. On the one hand this expresses itself in attempts to replace involvement in the actual struggles by abstract propaganda for a programme, by merely proclaiming the revolutionary party. On the other hand, it is revealed in attempts to create a left wing synthetically through education groups, or ‘rank-and-file’ organisations, etc. The active minority is confused with the class as a whole, and the would-be revolutionaries delude themselves that they can set up artificially something which has to arise from experience of the masses of workers. Only on the basis of mighty social upheavals can a mass left wing be built and the class rise to a comprehension of its historic role. To find a road to the masses Marxists must attempt to give a lead in all the workers’ struggles, at every stage, while at the same time fearlessly advancing the ideas and perspectives on which alone the class can go forward to victory.

Revolutionary organisation

THE SUCCESS OR failure of a socialist student organisation depends not on its organisational structure but on its political organisation. This nevertheless requires a serious approach to organisational problems. To win wider sections of students to the organisation, and to give direction to the student movement, the organisation must have bold perspectives and a clear programme. A loose ‘federation’ merely attempting to ‘coordinate’ various activities would not be able to give real direction. On the other hand the strategy and tactics adopted by the organisation must be worked out on the basis of thorough discussion amongst the membership.

If we are to come to grips with the problems facing the workers’ movement as a whole student activists must be prepared to formulate consistent and clearly defined positions rigorously, appraising (in a comradely manner) other political tendencies. Avoidance of this under the guise of ‘fighting factionalism’, ‘preserving unity’ is a completely false approach. In practice, the ‘anti-factionalists’ turn out to be the worst factionalists: they adopt a certain course but are not prepared politically to justify or to defend their positions.

Unity is vital. But it has to be built on a firm basis. A ‘unity’ that amounted to nothing but a tacit agreement to sink differences, eschew discussion of major problems, would be completely hollow. In the last analysis, every theoretical difference becomes a question of practical importance. Only ideas capable of consistently measuring up to events will provide a basis on which to unite students and, more important, to find unity with the workers.

It is necessary to work out an organisational form capable of achieving united action, and at the sane time allowing for the maximum possible discussion throughout the membership. A number of people have opposed the idea of a clear organisational structure on the grounds that it produces a ‘bureaucracy’. In fact, it is the other way around. Lack of firm organisational norms would mean that, in the absence of proper control, the organisation would be dominated by those who happened to be at the centre. It is this that would open the way to cliquishness.

We suggest the following general organisational lines:

(1) That RSSF consist of RSSF branches and affiliated socialist clubs etc which accept the aims of the organisation, both have equal status. Wherever possible RSSF membership should belong either to a branch or an affiliated society.

(2) That final authority in the organisation on all questions shall be held by the national conference, to meet at least annually and to consist of delegates from branches and affiliated societies in proportion to their membership. While only delegates have voting rights, the conference should be open to all members.

(3) That there should be a national committee to be elected on a political basis, from the conference, to be responsible for implementing the decisions of the conference. All national committee members should be subject to the right of recall and would also be responsible for all publications of the organisation.

(4) That there should be a secretariat elected from the national committee and responsible to the national committee to run the day-to-day business of the organisation.

(5) That the organisation of branches and affiliated societies should be on similar lines, with an executive committee elected by and responsible to general meetings of the branch, club or society.

The task facing us at the present may be summed up thus:

(1) To work out a programme based on the perspectives outlined above, armed with the programme of Marxism, then students could play a tremendous part in the fight to transform society on socialist lines.

(2) To turn to face the workers: the aim of a revolutionary socialist students organisation must be to penetrate the ranks of the workers and integrate itself in the workers’ movement.

October 1968


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