Why must the working class organise as a political party to achieve Socialism? The answer to this question is to be found in an examination of the nature and role of the modem State.
At present the capitalist class control society through their possession of political power, through their control of the machinery of government. They did not construct this machine for this purpose, as the anarchist claim; the machinery of government evolved along with the evolution of society as a whole. It is one of the facts of social life that the government machine is the centre of social control. The working class must base its policy on a recognition of this. If the working class is to become the master of society—which it must do in order to change it—then it too must recognise itself as a class, and organise itself politically. This political party must be Socialist expressing workers’ recognition that their emancipation can only be achieved by the expropriation of the capitalist class and the establishment of Socialism.
Given the need for a Socialist political party, on what lines should it be organised? A movement which aims at the establishment of a social democracy in which human instead of commercial values can flourish cannot employ means which are in conflict with this end. It must to a certain extent reflect the new society it aims to create. This means that it must be organised on democratic lines. Its membership, even when it is only a small group, must have complete control over policy; all its officials must be responsible to the membership; there must be complete freedom of discussion within the party; there must be no division into leaders and led; there must be no secret meetings from which any section of the membership is excluded. But not only must the party be democratic, it must also be open in its methods.
It must hold no meetings from which members of the working class are excluded. A Socialist political party can have nothing to hide from the working class. No gain can ever accrue to a Socialist party from seeking and getting support by subterfuges. Nor can it gain from using political dishonesty or terrorism. Such tactics would fail in their object. It’s not a question of the end justifying the means. The end just cannot be reached by such means. Workers cannot be tricked or coerced into becoming conscious of their position as a subject class. They can only come to such an understanding through their collective experiences as a class.
The Socialist political party will not appear ready-made. Like other social phenomena, it will grow out of social conditions. This raises the whole question of the role of a Socialist party in the class struggle. At present there are two obstacles which stand in the way of achieving Socialism: the political ignorance of the working class and the control of the machinery of government by the capitalist class. To overcome these obstacles Socialist understanding must come first. For this reason the main activity of a Socialist party in its early days must be propaganda. It must seek to dispel the political ignorance of the working class.
This does not mean that the relation between the party and the working class is to be that of teacher and pupil. Socialist understanding is not something that can be constructed out of nowhere; it must grow out of social conditions. Such understanding—or class consciousness—will not arise purely as a result of the propaganda of the Socialist party. Ideas only grip the masses when they are relevant to social conditions. There are any number of cranks around with utopian schemes for social reconstruction. What distinguishes Socialists from them is that Socialism is in the material interest of the working class. Socialists have social evolution on their side. The cranks have not—that’s why they’re cranks.
Education is not just a question of learning from books and pamphlets; that is just one aspect of learning from experience. The class experiences of the working class under capitalism will teach it that Socialism is the answer to its problems. The party can help this development of Socialist understanding by storing up and propagating the past experiences of the working class so that these are easily accessible. The principles of the Socialist party will be based on these experiences and will serve as a guide to social issues, being used to expose useless remedies. To carry out this task its members must necessarily have a fairly high degree of political knowledge, know their opponents’ case and be able to expose the flaws in their arguments. In its educational phase, precisely because it is such a phase, a higher degree of political understanding must be required of the members of the party than the working class need have to establish Socialism. As Socialist understanding spreads the number and importance of its opponents, and hence also of the need of a knowledge of their arguments, may well decline.
Once Socialist understanding grows to any appreciable extent, political conditions will completely change. Socialism will become a political issue. The comparative trivialities of present-day politics will be cast aside. The issue will be Capitalism or Socialism. With the changed conditions will come a change in the role of the party. It will become the political organisation of the working class which they can use to capture political power.
It is decidedly not the function of a Socialist party to lead the working class either in the struggle to live under capitalism or in the struggle for Socialism. The working class cannot be led to Socialism; it must emancipate itself. A Socialist working class will require no leadership; all it requires is organisation to put its aim into effect.
The day-to-day struggle of the working class, the economic phase of the class struggle, goes on in the place of work. To carry out this struggle is the task of the trade unions. In so far as they carry out this task they are class weapons. The task of bargaining with the employers is not one for which a Socialist party is at all suited. Of course, the members of a Socialist party, precisely because they are class conscious workers, will be active trade unionists, desirous of getting the highest possible price for their labour power.
Some workers are today organised in various political parties, in this country mostly in the Labour Party, but to a smaller extent also in the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the so-called Communist Party and the various Nationalist parties. But they are not organised as a class, they are not organised for Socialism. Those who make a political principle of joining and trying to lead the trade unions frequently also make a principle of joining such pro-capitalist workers’ organisations as the Labour Parties. But here they overlook the essential difference between the political and the economic organisations the working class need. Trade unions are class organisations when they are used correctly in the economic phase of the class struggle. They cease to be such when, for instance, they back productivity drives or finance politicians and political parties. In no sense are Labour Parties class parties, working class parties. They can correctly be said to be organisations serving the interests of the capitalist class since they are an expression of the fact that the working class are still imbued with capitalist prejudices. As it is one of the functions of a Socialist party to dispel such prejudices its members cannot work within such parties which only stand in the way of Socialist understanding and organisation.
These Labour parties frequently struggle for reforms within capitalism. A Socialist party struggles to end capitalism. It is no part of the role of a Socialist party to campaign for reforms. To do so is to invite degeneration into a pro-capitalist party by attracting politically ignorant workers who are only interested in reforms. When the Socialist political party is small a reform programme is futile, indeed farcical. When it becomes large enough to have some effect it doesn’t need such a programme anyway. For when the Socialist party is the working class organised politically for Socialism the capitalist class will no doubt be only too eager to offer concessions in a bid to ward off their expropriation.
To sum up, the movement for Socialism must be open and democratic. At present its role is largely restricted to propaganda, but in the future it will be the working class organised consciously and politically for Socialism. It will be the instrument they will use to capture political power. The Socialist Party of Great Britain offers itself for this task.