In January 1972 Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, 25-year old MP for Mid Ulster elected on an ‘independent socialist’ ticket, crossed the floor of the House of Commons in the British Parliament and punched Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in the face. He, a Conservative, had just spoken to Parliament blaming the deaths of “Bloody Sunday”, when British troops fired on demonstrators in the north of Ireland, killing thirteen, on the protestors themselves. Devlin, who had been a part of the civil rights movement in the North since she was a teenager, had been a part of the protest and was an eyewitness to the British military atrocity. She called her action in Parliament a “proletarian protest”. When asked by reporters if she would apologise to Maudling – the man slandering oppressed Catholic workers as terrorists – she said “I’m only sorry I didn’t get him by the throat.”
Devlin’s actions divided the world – ‘official’ parliamentarians from Labour to Conservative lined up to condemn her violence, while millions of those involved in movements against oppression across the world cheered her on for bringing the truth of her side’s struggle into the empty drama of Parliament. Devlin’s action is, for us, a small symbol of the kind of role a mass socialist party could play – it would bring the energy and determination of social movements and the workers’ movement in to Parliament in order to reflect them and give them greater strength, rather than see – as Labour and the Greens do in New Zealand – Parliament as the proper place for social change. A mass socialist party would recognize that the real power in capitalist society lies in unelected and unaccountable forums – the boardrooms of the big companies, the judiciary, the tops of the public service – and would see its role as fostering and leading struggle from below against these forces. Parliament can help here, to be sure, but only as a megaphone for and an echo to workers’ democracy outside.
Participation or Representation?
The reformist parties ask us to let them represent us. Vote for Labour or the Greens, the argument goes, and you can get the ‘right’ people running the country. There is, outside of election years, precious little for members of reformist parties to do – and then, once every three years, they are mobilized to try and get their party into the government benches.
A socialist party starts from the opposite assumption. We stand for mass, participatory democracy. A socialist party seeks then to bring the greatest numbers of people into active participation in politics as possible – better a workplace mass meeting than selected individuals being ‘consulted’ by the boss; better lively protest rallies and demonstrations than passive presentations to select committees; better strikes and occupations challenging the bosses’ power than years’ long challenges in the courts. The more ordinary people can be drawn into political action – into being actors in their own lives, shaping their own destiny – the more they can get a sense of their own potential power, have their own ideas challenged and transformed in struggle, develop programmes through debate and contest. Reformist organisations, keen themselves to be the next managers of the system, have historically always tried to head off this kind of development in struggle. Revolutionary socialists want to see it developed and extended.
That gives us a fundamentally different attitude to politics, and to representation. A mass socialist party would exist to link workers in struggle – joining the best, most active and committed militants from different workplaces, community struggles, locations and battles into a single body sharing insights, experiences and arguments. The party form would then involve a constant percolation of ideas and tasks both ‘from below’ and ‘from above’, as leadership and ‘led’ change and interact. Leon Trotsky called the ‘active intervention of the masses in historical events’ the ‘most indispensible element of a revolution’ – a socialist party would seek everywhere to encourage, facilitate and champion that active intervention.
This would never be solely over economic demands either, important as these are. Lenin’s description of the socialist party as a ‘tribune of the oppressed’ remains relevant today. Such a party, for Lenin, needs to be made up of people who are ‘able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his or her socialist convictions and his or her democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.’ The socialist activist, in parliament or outside, would ‘know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc.’
Lenin’s examples and language may be dated, but the model remains full of urgency for the kind of organisation we need to build now. The International Socialists are, at present, too small to be able to stand in the elections directly and to use the elections to raise the banner of our own programme. Our tasks, at the moment, are more modest: winning individuals to socialist politics, getting our message out amongst interested workers and students, playing a role where we can in struggles. But an election year provides a chance to set out the kind of alternative organisation our class really needs – a mass, revolutionary socialist party arguing for workers’ power and organising for workers’ self emancipation. That’s a ‘fresh approach’ worth fighting for. Let’s do this!