RISE: Scotland’s Left wing Alliance was launched in August 2015 as an alliance of left wing organisations, the largest being the Scottish Socialist Party. Its initial aim is to run candidates in the 2016 Holyrood elections. Comrades of the International Marxist Tendency in Scotland have joined the alliance as members of the SSP. At the December 2015 conference, around 300 delegates participated. In a country of 5 million, this is not a mass organisation but also not an organisation to be dismissed.
RISE has attracted a layer of the most class conscious people in Scotland. In its ranks are dedicated left wingers and self-sacrificing activists who are valuable to the movement. Most describe themselves as socialists and anti-capitalists. Many also describe themselves as revolutionaries and most are at least open to revolutionary ideas. This article gives a Marxist view of how small organisations such as RISE should orientate themselves.
The highly class conscious layer that RISE has attracted is a minority of Scotland’s population. The majority of people, most of time, do not partake in left-wing political activity. They keep their heads down. They spend long hours at work or school and much of the rest of their time looking after family. They’re tired and any spare time they have, they want to spend doing relaxing things, spending time with friends and loved ones, socialising, exercising, sport, drinking etc.
The media, education system and parliamentary politicians do a stellar job of making politics off-putting for most people. British Parliamentary politics, with its centuries of experience, has mastered the art of being extremely boring and too “sophisticated” (read obscure) for the masses whilst also being extremely repulsive and corrupt.
The conservative nature of our family structures, workplaces, religious institutions as well as our media outlets, schools and politicians and even trade unions condition us. They serve to keep our confidence and class consciousness low, or at least low enough for them to be subservient and efficient workers.
Often it seems that people will never move. The contradictions of capitalism which seem so obvious to the small minority of active, class conscious individuals in organisations such as RISE appear to be just accepted by the majority. A very harmful mistake socialists commonly make is to mistake this apparent subservience and conservatism as something actual and permanent.
The contradictions of capitalism are constantly registering in the consciousness of the masses. Workers know well enough the injustices of the system from personal experience. They may walk past a homeless family with the knowledge of empty houses on their street. They may see their boss make incompetent and destructive decisions which with the workers feedback could have been prevented. They may watch the news and see politicians implementing austerity whilst leading their armed forces into barbaric and expensive military adventures for nonsensical reasons. The list goes on. All the while they work hard to make ends meet whilst they see the rich and their stooges in parliament live in luxury. Workers will grin and bear these things most of the time and will often avoid even discussing them. However, these experiences are constantly shaping their consciousness.
In times of crisis like now the contradictions become even clearer. Workers are forced to work harder and gain less whilst the rich get richer. Wars and revolts are on the news more and more frequently and the future of workers and their children looks more and more bleak. This shapes consciousness more and more intensely.
Class consciousness does not develop linearly. After years of apparent calm there can be huge jumps. Marx said that when viewing history in terms of “newsworthy” events and developments, 20 uneventful years seem more like a single day, though these may be succeeded by days into which 20 years seem compressed.
The referendum was one of these periods where it seemed like 20 years were compressed in a day. Masses of people who had never been politically active in their life registered to vote with an 85% turnout. Not only this but massive public meetings, demonstrations etc. took place throughout the country. This level of political activity had not been seen in Scotland since the poll tax.
Jumps such as this are caused by a combination of objective and subjective conditions. In this case the objective conditions were social and economic consequences of the crisis of world capitalism. To working class people in Scotland this included savage austerity, increasing poverty and the more and more apparent rottenness of the British establishment. The subjective factor was the referendum which under the objective conditions turned into more than just a referendum on independence. To this layer of radicalised new voters it was about austerity, imperialism and poverty. This provided the outlet for many people who had previously never been politically active.
The yielding of a NO vote did not stop this movement. Days after the referendum three of the independence parties saw their memberships peak. The SNP gained over 60,000, the Green Party around 6,000 and around 2,500 applied to join the Scottish Socialist Party. Two months later, the Radical Independence Conference which attracted the most class conscious layers of the YES movement, sold out its venue with 3,000 attendees. It is the SSP and activists from the Radical Independence Campaign that currently make up the majority of the RISE active membership.
The level of mass engagement has died down since the referendum. This is clear when looking at the attendance of RIC meetings since, along with the attendance of branch meetings for pro-independence parties, and of course the attendance of public meetings and demonstrations since then.
This is nothing to be surprised or even worried about. The level of mass engagement seen throughout the time of the referendum cannot be sustained continuously and indefinitely. It happens in ebbs and flows and will be seen again. We cannot predict exactly when. We also cannot predict exactly how. It is likely that another referendum could spark it off again but many things can act as an outlet for the levels of discontent which continue to seethe under the surface. What we can do is prepare for the upcoming surges of class struggle.
Trotsky in the “The Lessons of the Paris Commune” said the following “The workers’ party – the real one, is not a machine for parliamentary manoeuvres, it is the accumulated and organized experience of the proletariat. It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the paths of development, all its stages, and which extracts from it the necessary formula of action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need of always recommencing its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes.”
It is common for small left wing groups to dismiss education or at least put it at the very back of the agenda. However this is a mistake. Past class struggle should be studied and discussed so we have an understanding of how class struggle has occurred in the past and how it is likely to proceed now.
Many activists have an impressive and valuable knowledge of the concrete issues of today based on their everyday experience and also effort to self-educate themselves, something which should be commended and encouraged. However it is less common for activists to educate themselves in Marxist theory. Within the works Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxembourg, Connolly and John Maclean, along with the Marxist history of more recent class struggles, there are many vital lessons which can be carefully applied to today’s conditions and can prevent the repeating of mistakes of the past.
This education can also significantly boost confidence of activists who will find it easier to publically speak, write articles and is the best way to ensure organisational democracy. The best way to prevent bureaucracies from developing in small left organisations is to have a confident and educated rank-and-file who can hold leadership to account.
When movements experience an ebb like now it is common for left-wing activists to get frustrated. Less than two years ago we saw YES posters in every third window in the schemes, marches up to the polling stations, big demonstrations outside the BBC office and friends and family members who had previously considered themselves apolitical getting involved. These phenomenal events are no longer happening and many wonder where it all went. They get frustrated with the masses for apparently giving up and frustrated with themselves for not doing enough.
Often to try to repair the situation they throw themselves into more activity. “If only we do more stalls, more canvassing, more stunts, we can resurrect at least some of the spirit of 2014”. The problem is that no matter how much activity small groups like RISE carry out, they alone cannot bring the masses out onto the street. As the Marxist Alan Woods said “the working classes will move when they are ready, not a second sooner, not a second later”. We cannot force it.
However, when activists see their tireless activity have little effect on the masses we often tend to get demoralised. We should make the most of these ebbs to educate ourselves, to debate theory and the political programme for the emancipation of the working class, and thereby build a solid organisation more prepared to intervene in inevitable upcoming surges.
RISE will be standing candidates in all of the regions. This can be a very useful tactic but with it comes many risks. It is important not to fall into the trap of thinking “we need to get candidates, all else is secondary”. Getting candidates into Holyrood would no doubt be a good thing and Marxists have and will continue to campaign for this. However, we see it as secondary. The primary purpose of election campaigns should be to raise our profile, contrast our politics to that of the mainstream parties and attract new recruits. We are in this for the long term and need our principles and ideas to last the marathon.
There is a small but growing layer of workers and youth in Scotland who could be attracted to an organisation such as RISE and the platform can be used to reach out this layer and give them a political home. Therefore, we must patiently examine and discuss the political programme we put across to these would be supporters so they are won to us on the right basis. We believe this programme must be unambiguously socialist.
Another risk that comes with big campaigns like the Holyrood election is to become too occupied with organisational issues. Organisation is obviously vital but for new members it can be very boring and alienating and drive them away. When meetings start with a political discussion this can serve to educate the comrades and also vitally keep up morale and a sense of perspective and proportion, particularly for new recruits. With the regained energy and passion that (friendly) political discussion can generate, the organisational aspects of the meeting can be covered more easily and activists would likely volunteer for tasks more readily.
A fatal risk that comes with parliamentary politics is the temptation to water down politics in order to win votes. The tendency is to exclusively use bread and butter demands which people can relate to. RISE has some very attractive policies. Demands such as living rent, rights for refugees, £10/hour minimum wage, fair pay for carers etc. all could connect with people. Transitional demands play a vital role in socialist tactics and Marxists are very much in favour of using them. However the problem is when they are used alone, sowing the illusion that these simple demands are all that is necessary in our political struggle. Ideas such as the need for nationalisation and workers control and a world socialist order are left out in the belief that its “coming on too strong”. But these ideas are vital, because none of the bread and butter demands can be lastingly implemented under capitalism, much less in an epoch of crisis such as this. We mustn’t be gunning just for short term electoral success, but to change society. We cannot do that without honestly explaining that the simple demands we all support, such as a £10/hour minimum wage, cannot be sustainable achieved without a socialist transformation of society.
The mistake here is that of trying to appeal to the mass of people when the aim of small organisations like RISE should be the thin layer of the most class conscious and radicalised people. To this layer, revolutionary ideas are very attractive. To water down our ideas will actually make us less attractive to these people, especially since the mass of workers are already supporting the reformism of the SNP. We must offer something different, more principled and with a serious theoretical foundation, instead of the SNP’s superficial promises.
If RISE puts internationalism at the centre of all of its publicity it can differentiate itself from the SNP both by contrasting its nationalism to internationalism and contrasting the SNP’s inherent pro capitalism with bold socialism. We won’t be able to stop the SNP wave of popularity but could recruit and build an organisation capable of intervening effectively in future events. The contradictions of the SNP will eventually be exposed for what they are as and when the workers move into mass revolutionary activity. The immense crisis capitalism finds itself in will, indeed is, creating the conditions for this, and will cut the ground beneath the SNP’s feet. As the experience of Greece and SYRIZA has shown, the workers of Scotland (and the world) need not the illusion of an alternative, but a real alternative to capitalist crisis. That is why the programme of socialism, and Marxist theory, must be centre stage.