This is part of a series of posts on revolutionary organisation. See the introduction to this series.
Capitalist society is full of contradictions. It is, for example, a society in which the ugly reality of poverty and inequality contradicts the enchanting rhetoric of fairness, equal opportunities and social mobility.
There are contradictions at the heart of how the system works. Though a system of competition, capitalism depends upon people co-operating with each other to do the work necessary for it to function. Capitalism expands and transcends boundaries, yet nation states remain important for the ruling class. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, yet divisions of nationalism, racism and so on remain.
One of the most important contradictions concerns the ideas we have about the world and ourselves. Marxists argue that society is divided into classes - a ruling class, which is a tiny minority, and a working class, which is the vast majority. It is in the interests of the great majority of people to make a revolution against a wealthy, powerful ruling class, seize control of the economy, and create a society based on radically different priorities.
Indeed, Karl Marx insisted that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. Fundamental social change - moving from capitalist barbarism to a free socialist society - cannot be delivered from above. Working people must free themselves.
There's a contradiction, though, between our material interests and the fact that - most of the time, in most places - we seem to be a long way from socialist revolution. There's a contradiction between Marx's self-emancipation of the working class and another of Marx's observations - that the ruling ideas in any age are the ideas of the ruling class.
The ruling class control the media, education system and other means of spreading their views, ensuring their ideas come to be seen as a kind of 'common sense'. Yet it is never, thankfully, as simple as that. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian revolutionary, referred to 'good sense' co-existing alongside this 'common sense'. He meant that ideas more in line with workers' material interests, and opposed to capitalist ideology, were also part of working class consciousness.
It is self evident that there's a mix of different ideas and worldviews inside the working class. It's also true that an individual can have a set of complex, contradictory set of ideas inside their head. They may (for example) be implacably opposed to public sector cuts but support the maintenance of the royal family, despite the monarchy being an institution that legitimises class privilege and inequality.
Consciousness is contradictory. It is uneven. This provides the starting point for discussing strategy and organisation for changing the world.
Reformism is, in normal circumstances, dominant inside the working class movement. This finds organised expression in parties like this country's Labour Party, which is a reaction to the unambiguously ruling class politics of the Tories but also reflects the uneven consciousness of the working class. Some things are rejected; others are accepted.
The Labour Party seeks to unite a broad spectrum of opinion within a single organisation. It also aims to reconcile opposition to many aspects of capitalism with that very system. Lenin called Labour a "capitalist workers' party" because it appeals to workers and largely reflects their ideas, but is nonetheless dedicated to managing capitalism and working within its restraints.
Reformism isn't just about big social democratic parties like Labour. It is rooted in contradictory, uneven consciousness, and can find different expressions. When a new protest movement develops there are those who want to work within safe, established channels, or who insist on polite lobbying over direct confrontation. There will be those who seek compromise and negotiation, or who soften their demands.
Revolutionary organisations take a different approach. A revolutionary organisation seeks to bind together those in a small (often tiny) minority who consistently reject capitalist ideas and have a revolutionary socialist outlook. This organised revolutionary minority is characterised by clarity and agreement on political ideas, by consistency in rejecting the contradictory positions generally held by reformist parties.
This does not, however, mean rejecting the vast majority of working class people who look to the reformist organisations as an alternative to the ruling class and its political representatives. It is constantly necessary for revolutionaries to relate to broader layers and work together in joint political and campaigning activity, in trade union struggles, and so on. Revolutionaries fight for reforms alongside those influenced by reformist ideas.
Those who characterise revolutionary groups as elitist or sectarian miss this vital element in what it means to be a revolutionary. It doesn't mean separating yourself off, to retain 'purity' of revolutionary commitment, but rather getting stuck into the struggle, being in the thick of it.
Revolutionary organisations can decay when they weaken their politics and make compromises with dominant ideas. But they can also decay when they retreat into inglorious sectarian isolation, standing aloof from the partial but important resistance to the system involving many non-revolutionaries.
One final point is worth noting in this opening post to the series. Revolutionary organisations can seem marginal most of the time, but in a revolutionary situation - and, as 2011 is demonstrating, these do happen - they can become critically important. An organisation built in advance, with roots in the wider movements and class, can play a decisive role when there is mass resistance and confrontations with the old order.
Still to come -
Part 2: Revolutionaries, movements and class
Part 3: Democratic centralism
Part 4: Seizing the key link