Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Building a revolutionary organisation: 6 lessons from the 60s

Over a year ago I wrote about the development of the International Socialists group during the 1960s. It was just after some of us had started Counterfire - as a new revolutionary socialist group - and the article, 'International Socialists in the 1960s', was intended as more than a historical curiosity.

Having recently re-read the article, I thought I'd identify some key points from it. I never did this at the time I wrote the account.

I'll largely leave it to readers to consider contemporary applications. We live in politically and technologically different times, though I regard this as a relevant precedent.

1. It was possible for a small group to grow rapidly.

International Socialists (IS) went from roughly 60 to 200 members between 1960 and 1964. It gradually increased this to 400 or so by the start of 1968, a year of ideological ferment and new opportunities when membership leapt up to around 1000. The membership was mainly quite youthful, as you might expect in conditions of rapid growth when phenomena like CND, the anti-Vietnam War movement and student occupations were crucial contexts for IS.

2. Being actively involved in a broader milieu was crucial.

It's obvious, really, but worth noting: how else can you recruit and grow rapidly if you aren't relating to significant numbers of non-members in broad-based campaigns or wider left-wing forums? Whether Labour's Young Socialists and CND in the early 60s, or Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and student activity in 1968, it was evidently crucial.

3. It was possible to grow without a good base in the trade unions, but it was important to nevertheless have some orientation on workplaces.

In 1966 there was a concerted effort to use a pamphlet aimed mainly at workplace reps - co-written by Tony Cliff, the leading figure in IS - to connect with thousands of workers over issues relevant to them. The results were hugely impressive, considering the very patchy nature of the base IS had in the trade unions. It strengthened the group's reputation among union militants, which helped a few years later when there was a major rise in workers' combativity and greater scope for developing socialist rank and file networks.

4. It was essential for IS to have its own media or publications.

Publishing newspapers and magazines helped the group present itself as theoretically distinctive, provided the basis for political education, and allowed the orgnisation to connect on a political level with many people beyond its ranks. Today there are other options for spreading socialist ideas and supporting the creation of networks of revolutionary socialists. But whatever different means - online and in print - are combined to do this, the need for independent media with strong politics and a core of activists dedicated to spreading the ideas remains paramount.

5. There were organising structures, but these were fairly flexible.

Organising and democratic structures were, as ever, indispensable to functioning and being effective. But these were subject to change and open to experiment. Inherited dogma didn't govern how they organised. The organisation was flexible in response to the needs of the political situation, and adapted its co-ordinating and democratic workings as it grew.

6. Tactical flexibility was also important, with sharp turns in focus and orientation occasionally required.

The group organised within Labour Party's fairly vibrant Young Socialists for a few years, but got out when this became a much narrower and less hospitable milieu. In 1967-68 a sharp turn - 'bending the stick' in a phrase of Lenin's popularised by Tony Cliff - to radical students was required, for example. Political principle and consistency were combined with organisational and tactical agility.


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