Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Seizing the key link

This is part 4 (the final part) in a series outlining the case for revolutionary organisation. See the foot of this post for more.

A revolutionary organisation combines principle and flexibility. The politics remains consistent over time: marxist ideas, at the core of which is the self-emancipation of the working class, provide continuity and root practical activity in a general political understanding of the world.

Tactics are informed by changing political circumstances, however, as well as unchanging principles. As I noted in a previous instalment, Lenin insisted on a concrete analysis of a concrete situation - not the unthinking repetition of dogma. This concrete analysis in turn shapes choices of strategy and tactics at any given historical moment.

Specific tactics are formulated in that larger context: a political analysis of the whole of society, historical and international experience, and a strategic understanding of how to transform society.

Some critics of the Leninist tradition accuse revolutionary organisations of 'opportunism' because of this tactical flexibility, when in fact consistent political principle anchors tactical twists and turns in a larger political project. The same critics claim Leninism is fundamentalist dogma, so it's perhaps worth taking their words with a pinch of salt.

A number of practical points follow this understanding. It becomes obvious that at any given time there must be a clear grasp of priorities. Resources - money, activists' time - must be allocated according to an organisation's democratically agreed priorities, which evolve over time (and sometimes alter dramatically).

Priorities are influenced by analysis of the balance of forces in the struggle between classes: where there are weak points in their side, where breakthroughs are possible, where we are strongest and can be most effective. Small acts have to be seen as interconnected with much bigger struggles.

Lenin wrote:

'Every question 'runs in a vicious circle' because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain of events.'

Occasionally there are events of great significance for revolutionaries, underpinning their political priorities over a fairly long term period. The terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, and the response of US imperialism, triggered a sharp re-orientation by many revolutionary socialists. Anti-imperialism became politically central and the priority was to build a broad, active anti-war movement. This rested upon prior analysis of imperialism in the modern world, but in practice a major shift in prioritising was needed.

Around September 2008, with the financial crash, the challenge of organising a response to the crisis of neoliberalism became especially crucial. Neoliberalism and US imperialism were, and are, both in crisis. September 2001 and September 2008 - the commencement of the 'war on terror' and a new economic crisis - are the defining events of this political period.

We can add important factors like the restructuring of the working class, the rise of Islamophobia and so on to this picture. Since May 2010 the neoliberal crisis has found more concrete forms in British politics too: a programme of mass austerity imposed by a Tory-led government. In 2011 a further development has become vital for socialists everywhere: the Arab Spring, and its impact on imperialism and the dynamics of global politics.

These context shape what we as revolutionaries do and, often in tiny ways, how we prioritise out tasks. This all means it is necessary to, in Lenin's phrase, 'bend the stick' towards a particular priority at any given moment. It's not the case that all issues and tasks are equal. For a socialist organisation to be effective, there must be prioritising - which means 'bending the stick' to a course of action that can bring decisive breakthroughs.

Tony Cliff, in 'Building the Party' (his book about Lenin and the Bolsheviks), wrote:

'In real life the law of uneven development dominates. One aspect of the movement is decisive at any particular time. The key obstacle to advance may be a lack of party cadres, or, on the contrary, the conservatism of the party cadres may cause them to lag behind the advanced section of the class.'

This explains why not only political priorities but methods of organising can change, sometimes sharply change, at different times in a revolutionary organisation's development. What works at one stage may later become an obstacle to progress. Lenin's ideas, not to mention his record in leading the Bolshevik Party, thus remain invaluable guides for building a living, breathing and fighting organisation of socialists today.  

Part 1: Class consciousness and revolutionary organisation
Part 2: Revolutionaries, movements and class
Part 3: Democratic centralism
Part 4: Seizing the key link


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