rs21 political weekend: Revolutionary organisation and the working class

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Charlie Hore writes:

Just over 80 people made it to the final session of the rs21 political weekend, a session that was as much about demonstrating the breadth of the weekend as an attempt to sum it up.

Ian Birchall began by with a CLR James quote new to most of us: ‘Lenin – not God, not Stalin’ and made a spirited argument for rescuing the real historical Lenin. He reminded us that the primary problem is people who want us to forget about Lenin altogether, and that any defence of the possibility of a workers’ revolution has to include the experience of Russia in 1917, and Lenin’s crucial role in the revolution’s victory.

But the went on to argue that Lenin’s most important contribution is his theory of the state –  ‘If you only ever read one book by Lenin in your life, it should be State and revolution’ – rather than his theories of organisation.

It’s quite true that Lenin worked hard to perfect revolutionary organisation, but at different times in very different ways – it’s possible to count seven or eight ‘models’ of organisation in different periods of the Russian revolutionary movement.

There is no such thing as THE Leninist party, and when the Communist International in the early 1920s tried to codify a general model to fit all circumstances, Lenin objected that the resolution was ‘too Russian, and unintelligible to foreigners’. In short, Ian concluded, we needed to say ‘yes’ to Lenin but ‘no’ to Leninism.

Ezekiel from SOAS UNISON (speaking in a personal capacity) gave a marvellous account of the struggles of outsourced cleaners at the college, starting with the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign in 2006, and stressed the dynamism of the campaign. When they won the London ‘living wage’ in 2008, this was seen not as the end of the campaign, but as a springboard to launch a fight for full equality with directly-employed staff.

The cleaners are almost all migrant workers, a group still sometimes seen as difficult to organise by union officials. But they had proved not just that it was possible to organise migrant workers, but that it was possible for migrant workers to organise themselves, to fight and to win. Alliances with students and other groups of workers had been crucial in that, and having hundreds of people on the pickets had given them a real sense of their potential.

In that process, he concluded, they were showing the Tories, UKIP ‘and all that rubbish’  that they were ‘here to stay, here to fight, and here to challenge the structure of the system that oppresses them.’

Jen Wilkinson, speaking on ‘rs21 and now’, began by quoting something Ian had said about what attracted him to the Socialist Review group in the early 1960s – a political analysis that tried to make sense of the modern world, a perspective for realistic activity, and an organisation that understood its limitations. rs21 is trying, in very different circumstances, to do the same sort of thing, and the weekend was designed to help us begin the process of working out that political analysis.

The weekend had been designed around three general themes – understanding the nature of the present period, Marxism and oppression, and revolutionary organisation – not because we see them as three separate topics, but as areas where we most need to develop our ideas. Some of the most interesting things about the weekend had been meetings and discussions that had looked at the inter-relationships between the three areas. And while we are still looking for the full answers, we are perhaps clearer about what the questions are.

We are brought together by a shared Marxist understanding of the world, and a shared perception that in the class struggle we are currently losing. But a shared starting point only gets you so far, and that’s where the idea of Marxism being both a science and an art is important – we need to have a perspective for activity that can start to make a difference to that sense of defeat. Austerity should be the obvious area to start, but as yet the scale of attacks have not been matched by anything like the resistance needed, in large part because of the impact of neo-liberalism.

In that context, the People’s Assembly demonstration in June could be important, not as the ‘next big thing’ which would transform the situation, but as a step towards wider resistance, and rebuilding both the left and wider working-class organisation.

She concluded by saying she hoped people had enjoyed the open and democratic atmosphere of the weekend, and saw that as part of creating a democratic culture inside the group that could allow us to work out together how to go forward.

A wide-ranging discussion followed, which centred around the two poles of needing to be realistic about the current situation of the left and the wider movement, as well as understanding the potential for sudden explosions. Two points in particular stood out for me. The first was Jonathan Neale’s argument that ‘this country is full of people who are desperate for someone else to lead a fightback’. The second was Estelle Cooch’s linked point about the desire to see change meaning that particular highpoints of resistance take on an importance out of proportion to the numbers involved.

In summing up, Ian Birchall noted that there were three people in the room who had been at the meting where he first joined the Socialist Review group, and that this highlighted the power of ideas to inspire and keep a commitment alive. Socialists cannot determine where or when or how an explosion will occur; but what we can ensure is that if there is such an explosion, there are active socialists armed with the arguments to meet its challenges.

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