While undoubtedly dramatic, the objective conditions we are faced with are ripe for the growth of socialist politics and organisation. Numerous structural crises - ecological, political, economic - define our present and demonstrate daily the inability of capitalism to function, let alone provide for the vast majority. Objective conditions, however, only point to potentialities. There are no guarantees of success or progressive breakthrough.

The subjective activities of socialists – and others – are crucial if the potential is to be turned into reality. Here the picture is less encouraging. Socialist ideas, although more popular than in the past four decades (think of the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns), remain so in the abstract. It is not the case that a confident working class, socialist cadre, organised in mass socialist organisations, and willing – let alone able – to turn the inherent crises of capitalism into an opportunity for systemic change, exist.

Forty years of working class defeat, the triumph of the global (neo)liberal order, and the concomitant collapse of the mass organisations of the working class – whether unions, community networks, or social democratic and Stalinist parties – have left deep scars, while a whole generation of working-class cadre was lost.

We are, therefore, in many ways, called upon to start again.1

Socialists today

In 1864, in the process of establishing the founding rules of the International Workingmen’s Association, Marx summarised what remains the founding principle of socialist praxis: “[T]he emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule”.2 Working classes (note the plural in Marx’s use) – the overwhelming majority of us – by their social position, hold the power not only to halt but also to take over production – the heart and soul of capitalism. In doing so, they can collectively democratise and rationalise social production – and redistribute its fruits.

Yet, today the socialist left is overwhelmingly separated from much of the working classes, despite continuing – rightly – to conceive of them as the agents of revolutionary transformation, through their self-activity and self-emancipation. The socialist left is made up primarily of isolated individuals, localised networks, or extremely small parties. Left hopes of electoral state capture or celebrations of the growing global influence of supposedly anti-imperialist, repressive, and authoritarian regimes, capture the dangerous political consequences of this isolation and its concomitant demoralisation.

The question in front of us then is how to move out of the relative isolation we find ourselves in, and develop both practices and organisational forms that can assist in responding to the objective possibilities of the moment, and build the mass struggle for socialism that our current moment so desperately needs. The above-mentioned quote by Marx should serve as an important guide: if socialist politics are centred on the self-emancipation of the working classes, it goes without saying that socialist activity must be guided by the principle of encouraging, facilitating, and developing it.

It is also true, of course, that much of this process lies outside of our control. It is the contradictions inherent to capitalism that lead to economic, political, and social struggles. It is the realities of exploitation and oppression that lead the exploited and the oppressed to fight back. No socialist individual, group, or party has ever created the conditions for rebellion or launched a wave of mass struggle by decree. The question is whether, when these struggles emerge, there exists an independent, rooted, and organised cadre within the working classes that can fight for political answers to the crises of capitalism - answers which do not turn workers against each other (men against women, citizens against foreigners, white against black, etc.) or limit their demands to small economic improvements to their lives (as trade union and social democratic bureaucrats often do), but instead demand a fundamental and complete transformation of society, organised for and by the majority.

The task for socialists today, then, is twofold and is based on preparing for the next waves of struggle, precisely in the moments before their emergence. In the words of Gigi Roggero: ‘The most important phase for the revolutionary militant is precisely when there aren’t any struggles. When struggles are already happening, it’s too late. We must anticipate in order to organise and to steer, not observe in order to tell and describe … Let’s neither depress ourselves by gazing out on a flat horizon, or be allured by the waves of a stormy sea: let’s try instead to gather the invisible eddies that move beneath the apparent calm. This is today’s task, our “what is to be done.”’3 Our task is to participate in the development of self-organisation and confidence, as well as the growth of internationalist, socialist politics, amongst workers. Let’s take these tasks in turn.


If socialism is the result of the struggle for workers’ self-emancipation, it goes without saying that socialists’ first and primary task is to participate in the development of organisational structures that facilitate their self-activity. This is important. Too often, from the second half of the 20th century onwards, socialists have conceived as their central task the building of socialist organisations. But this is turning the problem on its head – an issue to which this text returns below. Without workers’ self-activity, there is no socialist movement to talk about, let alone the possibility of developing socialist parties. These organisations cannot be imported by socialists but must emerge organically from struggle. Socialists can argue in their favour, however, and fight for their development.

Take the recent strike wave across Britain. Hundreds of thousands of workers, faced with falling wages and growing cost of living, moved into conflict with capital. They remained, however, largely dependent on the trade union bureaucracies to organise, lead, and develop strategies for the strike wave itself. This also meant that when union bosses called the strikes off, workers overwhelmingly went back to work, even when their demands were far from being met. However, a small radical minority in a number of industries – education, healthcare, and the post offices – got organised during the strikes, put out independent bulletins arguing for more militant action, and opposed unsatisfactory deals in a series of ‘workers say no’ initiatives. These are crucial networks that socialists should encourage, participate in, and aim to connect with each other. They lay the basis for greater democracy, independence from the bureaucracy, and militancy within the labour movement.

Similarly, the strike wave has pushed trade union membership upwards – even if temporarily, in an otherwise ongoing decline. Many workers have found themselves taking action and/or joining unions for the first time. Sometimes collectively – and dramatically – as in the wild cat strikes in Amazon warehouses. Sometimes individually, as the Organise Now network illustrates, workers interested in organising at work are put in touch with more experienced workers to help them get started. Again, these are crucial initiatives as they raise both the self-activity and the confidence of workers, while developing collective networks of militants in different workplaces. These initiatives, it should be said, are not limited to the workplace alone. Tenants’ unions, police monitoring projects, or anti-raid networks are all examples of potential working-class self-organisation when they involve the concerned themselves fighting back against cops, landlords, bosses, and the state. Wherever we find ourselves, the role of socialists must be to fight for and encourage the emergence of institutions of self-activity of workers in struggle. To achieve the goal of increasing agency, these bodies need to be as open and democratic as possible – rather than controlled by a party or group behind the scenes – should be obvious.

Yet, in the past, the latter approach has often prevailed. In the early 2010s, for example, as the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis hit and the newly elected Tory government turned towards austerity to make the population pay for the bailing out of the banks, local initiatives emerged organically across the UK. In numerous towns and cities, new committees called “place X against the Cuts” or “place Y stop the cuts” were set up spontaneously, bringing together local trade unionists, community campaigners, students, and concerned public service users. Local demonstrations were organised and the movement gathered at an impressive speed.

The question that emerged was how best to encourage and develop these initiatives - the emergence of a self-organised and identifiable vanguard within the labour movement. Instead of collaborating with their comrades in local campaigns to put out local calls for a national conference of anti-cuts groups, and thereby develop a real, national, rank-and-file initiative, built alongside thousands of working class activists, the response of the socialist organisations in the UK at the time was to establish a series of different and competing front groups that attempted to capture the leadership of these campaigns - a process in which the present author, unfortunately, participated. Counterfire had the Coalition of Resistance, the Socialist Party had the National Shop Stewards Network, and the Socialist Workers’ Party the Right to Work Campaign. In practice, this meant that the space for a national coalition was shut down by overcrowding, that socialists at a local level were cut off from the rest of the movement as they focused on building ‘their organisations’, and the opportunity was squandered.

There have been many other such moments since, too numerous to name, but the principle should be clear - the aim of socialists should be to respond to the class in struggle and support its development, emphasising self-activity and collective action. In doing so, socialists can demonstrate the practical nature of their politics, and their relevance to the struggle, and develop their influence and their networks. To put the influence and the growth of the party before that of the class is not only the definition of sectarianism, it is also the death knell of the socialist current in the struggle.

Towards a Politics of Liberation

For networks of socialist militants to exist, however, is not enough. The question becomes how to develop within them strategies to win, and to broaden the political horizon of its participants. To be organised in defeat can be important, but it goes without saying that it is crucial for self-organised workers to book victories and to develop direct experiences of their collective power, in order to raise their political horizons. This connects to the second task for socialists mentioned above: participating in raising the political level within the working class.

Indeed, our task is not organisational or economic alone. It is not true that workers automatically fight for progressive societal change. The not-so-distant ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ strikes in the North Eastern oil refineries (supported at the time by the union bureaucracy) are one of many reminders of this reality. In fact, there is no guarantee either that socialists automatically make these connections. In his important Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, Satnam Virdee traces the now nearly two centuries-long confrontation between what he calls nationalist and internationalist socialist currents within the working class in Britain. He shows how at every turn, key figures in both the labour and socialist movements have given in to prevailing racist ideas, against Irish, Jewish, Black, Asian, Muslim, etc., workers under the pretence of defending their “own” workers. In doing so, they not only turned on their comrades but strengthened the very class enemy and the state that they were fighting.

It was internationalist socialists, Virdee shows, often organised around socialists amongst newly arrived migrants and other racialised workers, who fought for a different, progressive, and liberatory socialism. This means that to encourage self-organisation is not enough, but that it must be done on an openly political, progressive basis. Workers can use their structural collective power to defeat the rising authoritarianism of the state, and the growth of fascism, and offer practical solutions to climate catastrophe. But to make these progressive political struggles possible, conscious workers must raise these issues and fight for them in their workplaces, industries, neighbourhoods, and unions. Socialists must be at the forefront of making these arguments and supporting other workers who are doing the same.

Unfortunately, faced with the historical failure of social democratic or Stalinist parties and unions to relay and fight for the demands of black, women, or LGBT workers, many of the activists involved in these struggles turned away from working class organisations. Virdee traces this split between social and labour movements to the 1960s and 70s, after which time, by and large, unions would continue to focus overwhelmingly on “pay and conditions”, while the struggles against war, oppression, or nuclear power were carried out in the streets and neighbourhoods, by wider social movements. In doing so, the base of the labour movement shrank, and the structural power that workers could mobilise by shutting down the economy was increasingly withheld from these wider struggles. This is a legacy which – bar some notable exceptions – we continue to deal with today. The insistence of Corbyn’s Labour Party to sidestep crucial political debates on migration, imperialism, and international solidarity, in the hope that promising a better economic future to voters would suffice to bring it to power, is a powerful illustration of this tradition – and its catastrophic consequences for the left. Yet, it does not need to be this way.

Tribunes of the Oppressed

A very different political tradition exists, and one which we need to recapture. In the late 19th century, socialist activists fought for the creation of new organs of worker self-organisation, in the so-called New Unionism movement. Hundreds of thousands of workers – most famously matchwomen and dockers – who had previously been considered unorganisable, led some of the most important struggles of the period, which in turn laid the foundation for the modern labour movement in Britain. Socialist activists not only participated in and supported these struggles as crucial acts of worker self-activity, but they also put forward anti-racist and anti-imperialist demands within them. Louise Raw, in her wonderful Striking a Light, shows how it was the Irish connection between many of the match women and the dockers in East London that allowed for the development of shared traditions of struggle and support. Networks which were to be key to the development of New Unionism. Similarly, it was socialists like Eleanor Marx’s insistence on fighting anti-Irish racism, supporting the Irish independence movement, and fighting sexism in the workplace, that allowed them to organise alongside these workers and play a key role in the upturn in struggle.4

It is this tradition that we need to recapture today if we are to address the great challenges of our time. This means that socialists need to raise political arguments, publish and distribute them, and do so within the workers’ movement. We cannot limit ourselves to going to union branches one day in the week, and attending social movement meetings and demonstrations on another. We need to fight to merge these struggles and turn unions, community campaigns, and social movements into interconnected institutions of revolt. In Vladimir Lenin’s famous words in What is To Be Done:

In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct “the economic struggle against the employers and the government”. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not [Socialism], that the [Socialist]’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is 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 [their] socialist convictions and [their] democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.5

Here too, we can turn to relatively recent history in Britain to think about what this might look like in practice, for example, when thinking about developing the relationship between the struggle against climate change or racism and the labour movement. Once again, examples are taken from the author’s own experience in order to strike a more self-critical than finger-pointing tone.

In 2009, workers in the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of White were suddenly told that the plant would shut down. Faced with the news, workers occupied the factory and demanded that the plant be kept open. Arguments around nationalisation and workers’ cooperatives flourished on the left. Many activists travelled down to the Island in support of the workers and joined the solidarity encampment in front of the factory. When workers were forced to leave, they maintained a blockade of the existing material in the factory, until it was forcefully broken by the state. At the same time, the socialist left passed motions in union branches up and down the country in solidarity with the Vestas workers and organised speaking tours to raise funds for their campaign. An important programme for ‘a million green jobs’6 was put together, which made the case for simultaneous economic recovery and climate action - something which remains highly relevant today. These were important things to do.

However, there is also a danger that the left limits itself to expressing solidarity and ‘goes through the motions’. The Vestas workers could not win on their own. Solidarity action was necessary, which needed to go beyond branch motions and TUC statements. The latter needed to serve in an attempt to build up more direct and militant action across the labour movement for climate justice and green jobs. It was not to be. The workers lost, and the moment dissipated. It is difficult to know if any lesson was learned in the process, or if the Vestas workers were as isolated in their defeat as they were in their struggle. In practice, the struggle itself is seen as the purview of those directly affected, and wider social movements can be mobilised to support them. Action within the labour movement, the mobilisation of political power through the interruption of work, is considered only theoretically and, therefore, not attempted. The socialist left thereby ends up contributing to the reproduction of the separation between political struggles in the streets and economic ones in the workplaces.

This approach can be identified in many similar campaigns, where trade union motions end up being seen as an end in themselves and not as a building block for action. For example, between 2015 and 2017 an important campaign developed in opposition to the government’s PREVENT strategy, which criminalised political dissent, disproportionately targeted Muslims, and made it a requirement for public sector workers - including teachers, lecturers, mental and physical health professionals, and even kindergarten workers - to report on ill-defined ‘signs of radicalisation, In practice, the provision has meant that critique of British foreign policy, solidarity with Palestinians, and other forms of direct action politics have been targeted as pre-crimes, particularly amongst Muslims. A campaign was formed, focusing primarily on education to oppose the policy: Preventing PREVENT. The campaign made important political strides in presenting and amplifying the critique of the policy in public discourse. Motions were passed in numerous student and trade unions. All national education unions adopted a policy opposing the policy. Conferences and protests were organised and campaign representatives were invited to address union conferences and branches.

But once again, the division between political and industrial activity was maintained at all times. The obvious - and necessary - next step was to turn trade union policy into an active industrial refusal to implement PREVENT - to launch a mass campaign of civil disobedience with the backing of the unions. This next step was never taken, whereas many agreed in meetings that it was necessary if the policy was to be defeated. It necessitated a move from general propaganda to specific strategising to win - where could branches move to implement an actual refusal, what would a solidarity campaign look like with those targeted, how would the movement respond to the state’s threats of withholding funding from institutions that failed to comply, etc. - something that 40 years of defeat have not equipped the left for in general. If socialists are to contribute to the movements in which they are involved, they will need to develop - alongside wider networks of militants - responses to these questions.

Failure to do so has real consequences. The PREVENT duty continues to be used. At the time of writing, the British government is using its provisions to target and criminalise expressions of solidarity with Palestine, at the very moment that it is supporting the Israeli government’s genocidal assault on the Gaza Strip. The call made by Palestinian unions in this context, demanding action against the arms trade with Israel by workers across the globe, further points to the need for militant political action within workplaces and the practical unification of social and political demands.

Organisational Question

To achieve these goals, we need organisation and collective action. Socialists have always spoken of organising the vanguard of the working class – which is to say, those workers who are convinced of their collective power, and their ability to mobilise it to change the world. But in doing so, we must avoid the mistakes of the past. Too often, the goal of organising the vanguard has been turned into a caricature of itself. Instead of understanding the vanguard as an always-existing minoritarian and militant strata within the working class, socialist groups have tended to substitute themselves and their programme for it, understanding the vanguard not as a social relation, which is to say as a layer of militants that are more prepared than the average worker to fight back and get organised, but as an expression of specific political positions. They did so despite (or perhaps because of?) their often minuscule size and lack of any real roots within the working classes. Already in 1971, Hal Draper wrote:

The sect establishes itself on a HIGH level (far above that of the working class) and on a thin base which is ideologically selective (usually necessarily outside of the working class) … It sees itself becoming, one day, a mass revolutionary party by a process of accretion; or by eventual unity with two or three other sects; or perhaps by some process of entry. Marx, on the other [hand], saw the vanguard elements as avoiding above all the creation of organisational walls between themselves and the class-in-motion. The task was not to lift up two workers here and three there to the level of the Full Program (let alone two students here and three intellectuals there!) but to go after the levers that could get the class, or sections of the class, moving as a mass onto higher levels of action and politics.7

The failures of the first approach led to the formation of extremely small parties (a few hundred or a few thousand at most), which prioritised ideological unity within their ranks and activity by their cadre in the process of party building as outlined above. Such an approach destined these groups to remain isolated, focused more on their own social reproduction than on the advancement of the struggle for socialism.

The reason for this state of affairs can largely be located in the specific historical situation following the Stalinist counter-revolution from the late 1920s onwards.8 As the socialist revolution was crushed in the Soviet Union by the new bureaucracy and the mass workers’ parties in the rest of the world declared their loyalty either to it or to their own states, the dominant idea amongst oppositionists (primarily Trotskyists at first, and Maoists later on) was that this situation was untenable in the long term. As new struggles were thrown up and new revolutionary possibilities emerged, so the argument went, the social democratic and Stalinist parties would prove themselves incapable and unwilling to fight for socialism. Workers would therefore look for alternative leadership. The strategy therefore was to build small, ideologically untainted, and hyper-voluntarist parties that could lay claim to this leadership role when the moment came. They were to lead by example and wait for the right moment to step into their role. Whether they theorised it or not, they started seeing themselves as the vanguard, waiting for the masses.

If this strategy can be understood in its historical context, it was nonetheless a failure. The 20th century was littered with epoch-making mass struggles – from the anticolonial revolutions across the global south, to mass workers’ and civil rights struggles in the global north – but workers never broke en masse from their historical organisations towards the small, hyperactive, groupings waiting in the wings. When workers did break, following defeats or betrayals, it was largely to disappear into demoralisation and disorganisation. The reason that this is important for us is that if the historical wager made by the countless revolutionary groups of the 20th century failed, it cannot only be blamed on specific historical or strategic circumstances. The score sheet of nearly 100 years of activity in this fashion is too damming for that.

To start over, then, is not enough. It is also necessary to start differently. Our task is twofold. On the one hand, we desperately need to bring together those militants who share a political project, focused on rebuilding the workers’ movement, its self-activity, and the socialist current within it. This cannot take the form of a centralised party for now. The networks that socialists can build now will necessarily be made up of small groups of people, unable by their size alone to represent or engage with the existing vanguard within the working classes, let alone the class as a whole.

Instead, we need to build up organisations for socialist activists with a strategic focus on the workers’ movement and its self-activity, as described above. They will need to be loose enough to be able to root themselves in different local realities, responsive to changing conditions, and resistant to imposing specific lessons from one struggle or geographic location across the board. Members will need to be involved in organising in their workplaces or communities, be prepared to learn from one another’s experiences, and contribute to newly emerging forms of worker resistance – whether through solidarity action or active participation. The non-centralised nature of these networks will be crucial – not out of principle, but necessity. Small, unrepresentative networks cannot ‘generalise from the best experiences of the class’, as the Leninist slogan has it. Instead, they are forced to advance, often in the dark, through trial and error, feeling their way forward as best they can.

The danger of imposing centralisation on small groups is that it encourages strategic and ideological unity at a moment when the experiences and ideas of its members - those participating in the development of its policies - are not rooted in the practical experiences of the working classes in struggle. It encourages the same logic criticised above: acting ‘as if’ the party is already a representation of the vanguard. This does not mean that such an organisation cannot take specific decisions to throw all its energy into a particular campaign, at a particular moment in time. This piece has shown examples where such a unified focus would have been crucially necessary. It does mean that it cannot confuse the need for short-term tactical centralisation, with an organisational principal. To do so would be to cut itself off from new experiences of struggle, contradictory processes, and the necessary reexamination of its previous decisions.

To facilitate this process of collective learning and development, while also participating in the debates which are taking place among the workers alongside whom we work, it is crucial to move beyond organisational or analytical questions alone – however important these might be. The period demands political clarity and principled defence of basic socialist internationalism: opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia, opposition to imperialism under whichever flag, opposition to state repression, opposition to the ongoing climate catastrophe, etc. To turn these general slogans into concrete political interventions, socialists need to put forward their arguments on every platform available to them: pamphlets, blogs, magazines, podcasts etc. This will feed a process of both internal and collective clarification. Wherever possible, this process should involve those alongside which we work and organise. Open political meetings, debates, and arguments are not only necessary for the development of truly democratic organisations. They are necessary prerequisites for the rebuilding of a socialist current in the contemporary working classes, able to rise to the challenges of the moment. We cannot aim simply to become organisational support networks within the labour movement – although we must be that too. We must aim to develop a new layer of workers that can truly operate, in the words of Lenin, as ‘the tribune of the oppressed’.

However, these political ideas should also, as in the examples above, be translated into action. This means strategies that can win real, tangible concessions for the oppressed and the exploited; that can start pointing to a different world, to a way out of the numerous systemic crises that we are facing; and that can lay the basis for the growth of new liberatory and socialist currents in the here and now. This will require strategic clarity, a preparedness for conflict with the state and employers, and a rejection of the status quo. It will, more than anything, require a commitment to victory and a rejection of a politics of habit and tradition - even if they are ours.

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  1. I have discussed these issues in greater depth before, see: Sai Englert (22 June 2020) ‘Notes on Organisation – Or Why We Must Start Again’, Notes from Below. 

  2. Karl Marx (1864), ‘The International Workingmen’s Association, General Rules, October 1864’ 

  3. Gigi Roggero (2020) ‘“A Science of Destruction”: An Interview with Gigi Roggero on the Actuality of Operaismo’, Viewpoint Magazine 

  4. See also: Yvonne Kapp (2018) Eleanor Marx: A Biography, London: Verso, on this subject and the similar importance of fighting antisemitism amongst her network of socialists. 

  5. Vladimir Lenin (1902) What is to be Done 

  6. Campaign Against Climate Change (2014 [2009]) One Million Climate Jobs - Tackling the Economic and Climate Crises 

  7. Hal Draper (1971) Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road. The Alternative to the Micro-Sect 

  8. Again, see: Sai Englert (22 June 2022) ‘Notes on Organisation – Or Why We Must Start Again’, Notes from Below. 


Sai Englert

Sai Englert is a researcher.