Coalitions can't substitute for revolutionary organisation but are a vital prerequisite.
A couple of years ago Paul Foot wrote an article in Socialist Worker arguing that people who were involved in the anti-war movement needed to belong to something more, a political organisation that took up other issues as well. We received two letters criticising his argument. They were from people who argued that they already had a wider organisation, the electoral united front the Socialist Alliance, and saw no reason to be in the Socialist Workers Party.
Their argument misunderstood the case for a revolutionary party. United fronts are important in bringing together people who are not convinced of the case for revolution with people who are. We disagree on how we are going to achieve our ultimate goal - or even what the ultimate goal is. But we are agreed on certain immediate actions which weaken capital and advance the interests of the exploited classes. And so we can fight together, whether it is a matter of resisting a barbaric war or building a left wing electoral coalition as a focus for opposition to New Labour.
Revolutionary socialists should be enthusiasts for such united action. But we also argue that something further is needed.
We think that the world's ruling classes will stop at nothing in order to preserve their position. They killed 200,000 people in the 1991 Gulf War and 40,000 in the 2003 war in order to ensure control of a strategic raw material. The example of Chile in 1973 and a dozen similar cases confirm the old view that they will not meekly give up their power simply because of a few million crosses on pieces of paper. Only a massive movement from below prepared at key moments to use force to counter their violence can overthrow such people. And those who agree with us need to be carrying the argument now, drawing people towards us and constructing an organised network of people. We need not just organisation, but revolutionary organising.
'Why?' some people ask. 'Revolution is not on the immediate agenda today anywhere in western Europe or North America, let alone in Britain. The immediate arguments are against imperialism and neoliberalism.'
This is to fail to see something very important. The question of reform or revolution is not just a question of what we do when state power hangs in the balance. It is essentially about whether you can bring about change of any sort. Those committed to reformism see it coming about from the top down by exerting pressure on the various institutions of bourgeois society. Sometimes the pressure is seen as exerted through parliamentary votes, sometimes by non-violent direct action, sometimes by force of public opinion, occasionally, in Third World countries, by infiltrating the officer corps of the armed forces. By contrast, revolutionaries put the stress on action from below, which means rejecting any illusions in the existing institutions.
The different approaches need not stop united action as we begin to build up opposition to aspects of the system. But usually a point is eventually reached in which the different approaches translate into diametrically opposed views as to what has to be done next.
During the miners' strike in 1984-85, the whole of the left was united in its support for the miners. But in the middle of the year a big divergence opened up between whether the strike should lead to the closure of some of the most important plants using coal, the steel plants in Scotland, South Wales and Yorkshire. A big chunk of the reformist left joined with some of the local area leaders of the union in pushing to allow coal or coke into certain steel plants to 'protect local industry'.
At the beginning of the struggle to stop Rupert Murdoch breaking the print unions, a section of the non-revolutionary left in the print unions opposed as 'premature' any action to stop him moving equipment into Wapping and tried at first to restrict the number of pickets on the plant to six.
More recently, the illusion that capitalist governments can be pressurised to do 'good' led many previously adamant opponents of militarism to back the war against Serbia, claiming it would 'liberate' Kosovo - and some were still hesitant on 'human rights' grounds about opposing the war against Afghanistan three years later.
Along with these big events, there have been scores of smaller ones in which those who have some faith, however residual, in existing institutions are tempted to compromise, alongside those who as revolutionaries try to carry the struggle forward. Who wins the argument in such cases may not determine the victory or defeat of a revolution, but it can determine the victory or defeat of some important struggle.
People's consciousness is rarely homogeneous. As the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci pointed out, people can hold contradictory ideas in their heads, some arising from existing society, some arising from the struggle against it. Those who say the argument over reform and revolution does not matter are saying that these contradictory notions are not a problem.
There are times, particularly in the build-up of any struggle, when this seems to be true. The confused reformist can make propaganda against something being done by capital or its government just as effectively as the revolutionary can - often more effectively, because the reformist is much better known to the mass of people. But a point comes when the ideas that the reformist still holds that arise from existing society begin to hold the struggle back, often at decisive moments. At that point some reformists can break with their backward ideas. Others won't.
That is when the existence of a revolutionary organisation becomes very important. If it has members located in every part of the struggle, respected by those who have looked to reformist figures previously, it can exercise influence over events. And its members, by getting together to discuss soberly what the real balance of forces in the struggle is, have the possibility of preventing each other either getting left behind by the change in the mood of the mass of people, or of getting so carried away by events that they exaggerate the possibilities open to them. But they can only have enough faith in each other to think and act together like this if, previously, they have tried to iron out the contradictory elements in their own thinking.
But such a revolutionary organisation cannot achieve this position unless, long in advance, when the differences in ideas seem less important, it is doing its best to win other activists to its clear understanding of how the system functions and how it has to be fought.