Tony Cliff

Why we need a socialist workers party

(January 1977)

From Socialist Worker, No.509, 8 January 1977.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, London 1982, pp.274-7.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

FOR A NUMBER of years, the International Socialists was a propaganda group.

But, increasingly over the last year, IS acted more and more as an organisation which initiates action.

That is the meaning of the Right to Work Campaign, the Campaign against Racialism and so on.

In the course of the last year, our organisation has become a party. But we should not have illusions of grandeur. To use sporting terms, we are still in the fourth division.

For a time, the Communist Party tried to deny the fact that we were more or less the same size from the point of view of active membership. But, if nothing else, the recent parliamentary by-elections proved that we are in the same league.

In Walsall North in October 1974, the Communist Party got 465 votes. In November, our candidate got 574 votes on a lower poll.

Last November’s Right to Work Conference made the point once again. In terms of delegations represented, it was bigger than the last three Liaison Committee conferences, whose main initiator was the CP.

But it is important to be clear that while our capacity for initiating activity is greater than that of the Communist Party, the ideas of the CP and of the Labour Left – which are indistinguishable from one another – are far more widespread than ours.

The ability of these organisations to prevent action is still greater than our ability to get real action going.

For two years after Labour came to power, until last spring, our membership slowly and gradually went down from 3,300 members to around 2,650 members. In recent months things have changed.

In June we recruited 64 members, in July 77, in August 100, in September 174, in October 192, in November 243, and in the first three weeks of December 155, making a total of over 1,000 in just over seven months.

For the first time in the history of our organisation, there are more manual workers than white-collar workers. And all of this is indicative that the deepening general crisis of the system, plus the crisis within the Labour movement, gives us great opportunities to build the organisation.

At the same time, the purpose of recruitment must be clearer now than ever before. The events in Portugal, where a revolutionary party has been, and is being, frittered away, underline the key role of a revolutionary party in transforming a revolutionary situation into a victory for the working class.

The greatest victory so far of the international working class, that of the October revolution in Russia, also showed the key role of the mass revolutionary party.

There is no doubt that in a few years’ time, perhaps six, perhaps eight, perhaps ten, Britain will face a level of unemployment of three or four millions.

Under such conditions, two alternative policies will appear as a solution to this unemployment.

One is the revolutionary socialist alternative – the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialist planning. The other is the fascist solution: If there are three million unemployed get rid of black workers, the Irish and the Jews’.

If, at the beginning of the revolutionary crisis, there is a mass revolutionary party of sorts, it can grow quickly in the months of the crisis so it is able to lead the working class to power.

In February 1917, the Bolshevik Party had 23,600 members. By July it had nearly 250,000.

When, at the beginning of July, the capitalist press started a massive slander campaign against Lenin, accusing him of being a German agent, the flood of denigration was stopped by the mass party with one in ten of the workers.

Imagine if the party had only one per cent of the workers. Perhaps every member would have convinced ten or fifteen workers that the capitalist press was lying. But the majority of the class would have fallen into the trap.

The conclusions for us are clear. If, when the revolutionary crisis comes to Britain, we have 40,000 members, there is no question that we can grow to 400,000 or perhaps half a million.

If, on the other hand, the revolutionary organisation has only a few thousand members, it is even possible that the party appears as irrelevant and does not grow at all. A certain size is necessary for take off.

Recruitment is the first task we have to carry through. But an army which is simply collected together is no good at all unless it is at the same time involved in struggle.

That is the importance of building our fractions, building the factory and workplace branches, building the rank and file movement.

In building the party, Socialist Worker is one of the most important weapons we have, involving both party members and the periphery in activity in the working class struggle and in building the party.

In the years 1912 to 1914, the Bolshevik Party had 3,000 members in Petrograd. The party paper had a circulation in the city of 30,000.

In 1917, party membership in Petrograd reached 32,000. And there is no doubt that those who bought the paper in 1912 became, a few years later, party members.

So when we sell Socialist Worker the aim is not by any means only to raise 10p or even make propaganda. Above all it is to organise round our policies.

Our organisation must become an accepted part of workers’ lives where they work and where they live.

Finance is also increasingly important. Raising it is a political act. Without it, we could not have printed the hundreds of thousands of leaflets to combat the racists. Without it we cannot do the many more things we need to do.

It is extremely important to raise this money not only from the members, but from workers sympathetic to our ideas. The 5p a week paid by unemployed IS members is every bit as important as the £5 paid by a well-to-do comrade.

If we believed that the way to socialism was through parliament, the structure of the party should basically be that of branches based on constituencies.

But because we believe that the class struggle is the way to achieve socialism, the revolutionary party has to build itself by and large in workplaces, though we are still far too weak to have the majority of our members in factory and workplace branches.

We have to build there more and more, especially, now, when there is a growth of the class struggle and of recruitment.

But we must be careful how we build. The reformists always have a difference between their words and their deeds. After all, Harold Wilson did not appear on TV to say Vote Labour and Double Unemployment.

Revolutionaries should never have a difference between their words and their deeds.

One can be very “Revolutionary” by promising things you can’t deliver.

Suppose I was in the business of making promises I couldn’t deliver. I’d promise my child a gold-plated Rolls Royce in 1999. It is a safe promise.

First I’ll probably be dead by 1999. If not he’ll probably forget my promise by then. And if those two things don’t work, I’ll have 22 years to think of excuses.

So if we have comrades who are teachers they can’t at the moment deliver a general strike against teacher unemployment. But they can carry a no-cover policy and they can build from there.

We have to orient ourselves more and more to the specific, to the factory bulletins. With these you can’t start with general statements about unemployment or racism. You have to talk about specifics, about an overtime ban here, a specific instance of discrimination against black workers there.

In February and March this year we will be holding some 200 meetings with the central theme of building the Socialist Workers Party. The aim of them will be to recruit – and recruit quickly.

To prepare the ground, we have a marvellous new booklet written with compassion and passion, titled Why you should be a socialist – the case for the Socialist Workers Party.

We intend the comrades to have a month or so of selling this pamphlet, seeing as many of the buyers as possible and getting them to the meeting with a clear knowledge of what the meeting is for.

It is possible, and vital to build the organisation quickly. But it is also a fact that many of us suffer from conservatism in doing that.

As a result of two tough years many of us are putting the sights far too low. We are afraid of being hurt and therefore look for safety. And, of course, if you try to recruit no-one, you are 100 per cent successful.

The present members of our party are not the salt of the earth, the select few. If any elitism exists in our organisation it is necessary to uproot it completely.

Some revolutionaries do suffer from elitist notions. They think of the barricades as follows: In the front row there is an Imperial Father of the Chapel representing craft workers in all their glory. He is wearing his gold chain of office to pay homage. Or is it perhaps to say you have nothing to lose but your chains.

And then there are some representatives of section one of the Engineering Union.

Only then if there is enough room in the street they would in their generosity allow some blacks, a few women and some youth – if they know their place, that is.

Revolution has nothing at all to do with this hierarchical concept.

Anyone who is in any doubt about it has no need to look further than the boys and girls of Soweto.


Last updated on 17.11.2004