Dear Comrades,
As editors of Notes from Below, we have taken a different approach to this issue. The journal usually focuses on publishing worker writing. When we started almost six years ago, we understood that any revolutionary politics adequate to our situation would have to begin from the perspective of the working class. Then, as now, we drew our methods and theory from a broad Marxist tradition that seeks to understand and change the world from the worker’s point of view. To make that connection to the working class perspective a reality, we have published workers’ inquiries, intervened to circulate and develop struggles, and aimed to build workers’ confidence to take action by and for themselves. We have developed an understanding of the ‘class composition’ that prevails in Britain today. Class composition means the way in which the classes that make up capitalist society are organised technically, socially, and politically. We believe that developing a more grounded understanding of class composition is fundamental for contemporary militants if we are to develop strategies adequate to our moment without relying solely upon the past for guidance.

This approach has had many successes, for example, in finding the wave of subterranean struggles led by migrant workers in response to the expansion of platform capitalism. It also revealed an increasingly militant approach amongst university workers, despite the surface appearance of conservatism from trade union bureaucrats. Today, we can say with much greater confidence that we understand the broad outlines of the situation facing the working class in Britain. Inquiry, however, has never been a complete political methodology in itself. We have followed Ed Emery’s repurposing of Mao’s slogan: “No politics without inquiry!”

But now we must turn our attention to the other side of that coin: no inquiry without politics. We have always been clear that inquiry is just one moment in a broader political methodology. In this issue, we have focused on the processes of agitation and organisation that emerge out of inquiry by commissioning writing from revolutionaries embedded within the working class. We have made this decision because we believe that disorganisation is no longer an option given the accelerating crises of our moment. However, the organisational options on the table are not good either: vanguardism, electoralism, syndicalism - each approach has distinct shortcomings. Our task, which we have begun in this issue, is to devise an alternative.

We are united by our desire for a revolution. Not in the abstract sense of “oh, wouldn’t that be nice”, but in the concrete meaning of “that is what we’re working for.” We believe that the ongoing destabilisation of capitalism offers us a unique opportunity to build a new kind of communist political organisation. The work required to achieve this goal will be incredibly difficult. We want to organise with other workers, to meet them where they are and help turn their immediate economic struggles over wages and conditions into a more general political conflict over the organisation of society.

We see this issue of Notes from Below as the first step to bringing together like-minded militants committed to doing everything we can to achieve our political goals. In this editorial, we outline our proposal for what that everything could be.

The Current Issue

Our shared starting point is understanding the importance of workers’ experiences and struggles. At work, we confront the contradictions of capitalism most clearly, but it is also where we can find our leverage. The changing experience of work shapes our struggles in significant ways. In Notes from Below, we try to analyse these through theories of class composition:

Class composition is a material relation with three parts: the first is the organisation of labour-power into a working class (technical composition); the second is the organisation of the working class into a class society (social composition); the third is the self-organisation of the working class into a force for class struggle (political composition)1

We believe that understanding changing class composition in different industries and sectors is a critical part of a project of collective self-emancipation. Workers’ inquiry is one method to do this, with the results analysed through the concepts of class composition. So far, Notes from Below has published inquiries in different sectors and attempted a wider analysis in Class Composition in Britain. However, the point of inquiry is always to use the process and the knowledge produced to politically organise as workers. Indeed, workers’ inquiry at its most useful is often indistinguishable from the act of political organisation itself.2

The Politics of Inquiry

It has been almost six years since we started publishing Notes from Below. The editorial board has shifted and grown, while the output has become more organised and focused. We chose the name “Notes from Below”, after much discussion and some bad attempts at puns, to signal the politics that we wanted to try and build towards. We were trying to orientate away from the existing “Left” and rebuild a politics that starts from workers’ changing experience of capitalism. The “from Below” comes from an argument made by Hal Draper:

“What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized ‘from below’ in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”3

There are few “from-above” options in Britain at the current moment, particularly after the collapse of the Corbyn project. We believe interest is resurgent in “from-below” politics.

Many of us have had recent conversations with comrades interested in doing more collective political work. Despite this, there needs to be more clarity about what that could involve. There is a growing interest in worker organising and what organising beyond the trade union form could involve. This issue of Notes from Below is an attempt to formalise some of those discussions into contributions we can debate. The process of putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) can be clarifying. In the process, we have to start working through a political argument.

The missing puzzle piece is what an analysis of class composition means for our interventions. In the most recent issues of Notes from Below, we have identified strategic challenges in the food supply chain. In addition to these, we can also see significant challenges for organisation, including the failure of the post-1968 party form and lack of other successful alternative forms of organisation; the self-siloing of much of the “left” into NGOs, the trade union bureaucracy and other forms of “campaigns-based” employment over the last decade, separating these individuals from the workplace shopfloor; and the limitations of politically regrouping around purely economic struggles. At the same time, we have also identified opportunities in the near and medium future. Following the strike wave over the last eighteen months, many militants have begun to focus again on the workplace as an essential site of struggle and wider recognition of the need to come together and work through the organisational shortcomings of our tendency that this period highlighted. There is a pressing need to begin preparing for these. Industrially, we are in a moment of relative calm compared to the last eighteen months, but there are also high levels of official union action. This provides the opportunity to experiment and build something in a window that will not remain open indefinitely.

Simply producing inquiries is not enough. Detailing bad working conditions or struggles that we as workers face is important, of course, as is collating our experiences of changing technical composition to try and predict potential future political compositions we can intervene in. Lenin came to similar conclusions in the early 1900s, discussing a form of inquiry called “exposures”. He argued that:

“Economic (factory) exposures were and remain an important lever in the economic struggle. And they will continue to retain this significance as long as there is capitalism, which makes it necessary for the workers to defend themselves. Even in the most advanced countries of Europe it can still be seen that the exposure of abuses in some backward trade, or in some forgotten branch of domestic industry, serves as a starting-point for the awakening of class-consciousness, for the beginning of a trade union struggle, and for the spread of socialism.”4

However, more than inquiry alone is needed for political organisation. Lenin’s writings on “exposures”, also warned of those who focused solely on the activity of inquiry:

“[There are those] almost entirely absorbed by this work of organising the exposure of factory conditions …so much so, indeed, that they have lost sight of the fact that this, taken by itself, is …merely trade union work.”

Instead, militants need to be using the act of workers’ inquiry to be constantly going beyond it. This means using an open-ended process of inquiry to inform attempts at political organisation in and across different workplaces. As Lenin continues:

“[They must] not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but …they must [also] not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities.”

As the article Syndicalism and the New Limits of Trade Unions in this issue details, it is imperative to continue to organise at work, meet other militant workers, and inquire into our conditions as workers. But at the same time, it is also crucial we fight for ways to go beyond the constraints of trade unionism and use this activity as a launching pad for political struggle.

The Question of Organisation

A publication provides a way for a group of editors and writers to begin developing a shared perspective. However, it is not an organisation. The structures of a publication focus on who writes and what they write. Readers may decide to do something based on reading a piece, but no coordinated activities come from this. A publication can, and indeed we believe that Notes from Below has, play an essential role in providing a pole of attraction. However, our current context demands much more.

What political form could be appropriate in the current moment? Organisational form should always follow politics, not the other way around. We face a collapsing institutional left, a cost-of-living crisis, impending climate chaos, and high levels of industrial action - albeit with relatively low rank-and-file organisational capacity. As detailed in Notes from Below, technical and social composition have significantly changed. At a broad level, larger and well-unionised industries have given way to a split between falling levels of unionisation in the public sector (particularly in education and healthcare) and a private sector that is increasingly non-union. Union density is at a historic low of 22% across the British workforce. Indeed, even where unions exist, collective bargaining and negotiation fail to play their historical role in maintaining working conditions. Working class institutions are disappearing, and communities are becoming more fractured and transient. All of these throw up new challenges for collectively organising.

Historically, the most successful forms of organisation build upon the strengths of different compositions, and find ways to overcome the weaknesses those compositions may involve. For example, the organisation of miners and other workers in heavy industries was connected to communities close to the workplaces. Workers could develop strong organisations running through the workplace and community through trade union clubs, normally held together by the work and solidarity activities of women. Similarly, the organisation of dock workers had to overcome precarious employment relationships to build their collective power. The New Unionism of the 1880s provides a powerful example of this process, from gas workers to the Match Women’s strike in East London. Later, the successes of the Communist Party’s organising was often based on its integration into the technical and social composition of different workers. More recently, strikers at Burnsall in Smethwick set up a broad base support network to build power beyond the hollow trade unionism of the New Labour years (these included the Indian Workers Association, community and anti-racist activists in Birmingham, the South Asia Solidarity group in London, and Women Against Pit Closures in Wales).

However, today, the existing left and the labour movement have struggled to come to terms with the changing shape of class composition, either ignoring these changes or trying to continue with models of organising that clearly no longer fit. We need to find a way to connect communist politics to the experience of workplaces today. As well as being able to move between the economic and the political, militants should aim to use workplace struggles as leverage for social struggles. Any organisational form today will have to confront this task directly, and use it to inform how they interact with others currently organising solely outside the workplace.

There have been flashpoints in recent struggles and moments of the assertion of rank-and-file power. However, most communist organising is now fractured and isolated. We know much about which political forms of organisation do not work. Today, the most familiar form of political organisation is the post-1968 revolutionary party. These are often self-proclaimed vanguard parties that often publish a newspaper. It is a political form that can provide plenty of warnings of what does not work. In Britain, the most dominant manifestation of this form has been small cadre organisations with tight discipline. These organisations claim varying inspiration from Trotsky and Lenin but, in practice, have tended to develop deeply sectarian models of organising. It is sectarian in that they build the party first, competing with other political tendencies, while elevating this activity above the political work of supporting and engaging in workers’ struggles.

A fundamental problem with this model is that it was based on a relationship between party and class that does not, and cannot, exist in this miniature form. Historically, these parties’ aims, when they more often took mass forms, were twofold. The first was to learn from the most advanced sections of the class, seeking to generalise these experiences more widely. The second was to be able to intervene at critical moments or during important struggles. However, for a small organisation, it can be very difficult to learn from working class struggles when they are isolated from the overwhelming majority of the working class. Instead, members of the party (and they are the “revolutionaries” after all) try to generalise from their own experiences. Rather than using organisation as a way to develop communication between different parts of the working class, and contributing to vanguard “as a social relation” - i.e. a layer of worker-militants that are more prepared than the average worker to fight back and get organised - they instead attempt to substitute the party’s own activity for that of the working class as a whole. This further cuts the party and members off from wider connections to the worker class. The result was often the creation of “front” organisations that party members dominate under another name.

The problems here, as well as the dead end of electoral politics in Britain (as Now the dust has settled: Corbynism in retrospect in this issue details), means we know a lot about the forms that do not work. However, we know much less about what could work now in practice.

Critical practices for an organisation

It is too early to provide an exact blueprint for a new political organisation at this stage. However, what we can do is begin to outline a shared starting point for building a coherent communist project with an orientation towards workplace organising. By communist, we mean a revolutionary politics based on the self-emancipation of the working class. Instead of arguing about which flavour or brand of communism, we want to practically work towards a form of politics and organisation that can equip us for the task ahead.

One task that we see ahead of us is mapping out what revolutionary communists need to do to confront capital, the state, and the impending destruction of the environment. This means developing a strategic focus, through inquiries and organising, on the sectors and industries through which we can challenge all three. We want to understand how an alternative way of living can be posed, fought for, and defended. It also means understanding how key strategic sectors: food, water, electricity, care, transport, communication, and so on relate to the broader economy. Instead of just dreaming of utopia, we want to collectively develop tactics and strategies to make it a reality. Three main practices will be important in doing this.

First, practising a politics of inquiry. We have spent the last six years undertaking and sharing workers’ inquiries. This method provides a meaningful way to develop a relationship between militants and workers’ struggles. It encourages workers to develop new subjectivities, and therefore new political recompositions, by reflecting on how their workplace functions. Inquiry can act as a guard against substitutionism, ensuring that ideas are formed and tested in practice. An open question is what an organisation based on inquiry involves. We want to continue using the method to inquire into our own conditions, as well as building connections with other workers. This means providing a regular space to debate and explore how class composition is changing. However, it means developing concrete strategies from a class composition analysis. This also raises critical practical and theoretical challenges, particularly around inquiring into new strategic sectors, how to tear down the divisions in the working class, and ultimately leap to new political compositions.

Second, practising mass and democratic forms of organising. A mass orientation is about the kind of activities we want to be involved in. The aim is to develop relationships beyond the boundaries of any organisation we are part of. This is about developing two-way relationships, both learning from struggles and being able to contribute to them. For that to work, we need a democratic culture that can compare different experiences of struggles, both positive and negative. Democracy is vital for producing an organisational form which allows the flexibility to respond to shifting struggles, and facilitates the building of responsive and engaged cadre.

Third, developing a shared political space. As many of the contributions in the issue have noted, there has been a decline in trade union and left-wing political spaces. There are few places where communists can collectively discuss their theory and practice. While a journal can provide space for theoretical discussion, a collective space is urgently needed to debate communist practice. Organise Now! has shown the need in the labour movement to provide coaching beyond that offered by the union bureaucracies, as there are very few other places where we can find this. Similarly, we need a collective space to support and develop ourselves as communist militants. Struggling as a communist militant, particularly in your workplace, can be an incredibly lonely experience. Without having the space to share and learn from others, as well as feel the political confidence that comes with being part of such a collective, we will more often than end up simply chewed up and spat out by the struggles we are part of.

The Task Ahead

These three practices - a politics of inquiry, democracy, and building a shared political space - provide a starting point for what an organisation could look like. We want to start experimenting with what forms of political organisation can develop from and relate to class composition today. This means we need a model that is attentive to class composition differences across sectors and tries to build together.

We are in a conjuncture that is alive with opportunities, but that faces significant political challenges. There is potential to cohere a layer of comrades with a shared perspective and commitment to communist organising, but we are also facing the existential dread of climate chaos and the collapse of existing institutions. In practice, we must find out what form of organisation can work now. A political organisation, regardless of the form it takes, is a tool. We want to build it so we can develop our collective power and capacities. We must keep sharpening it to deepen our understanding of class composition and direct our limited time and energy towards doing something together.

Unlike some political organisations of the past, those of us who consider ourselves revolutionaries today have no plan to follow. There is no one we can ask, no one who can tell us what to do. Instead, we have edited this issue to bring together contributions to help us collectively work out what happens next. No map charts how we get to a communist future. However, through inquiry, we can start piecing together the fragments with each other, in order to work out where we need to go. These need to be drawn through struggle, taking in the power of workers and capital, searching for weak and strong points. They are our only signposts towards communism, and we must pay attention to them. We need to step into the unknown and try out new ideas. Now is the time to make this leap together.

No politics without inquiry!
No organisation without politics!

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The Editorial collective of Notes from Below.