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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Are there stages of consciousness? What do they mean for entryism as political strategy?

Are there stages of consciousness? What do they mean for entryism as political strategy?

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Platypus Review #83 | February 2016

ON AUGUST 6th IN FRANKFURT AM MAIN in Germany there was a Platypus panel on the question‚ “What is a left political organization?” (( The audio recording is available at <>. )) Among the panelists was Daniel Behruzi from the German section of the Committee for a Worker’s International (CWI), whose American section is Socialist Alternative and whose British, Irish, and Australian sections are all named the Socialist Party.

Towards the end of his introductory comments, Behruzi stated the following:

It is a lesson of history that consciousness doesn’t leap to revolutionary conclusions. Rather, it is a process. The consciousness of individuals may make leaps, but the consciousness of the masses—whether reformist, left-wing reformist, or centrist—traverses specific stages to each of which there corresponds a specific organizational expression, whether it be parties, tendencies, or other types of political organization. For this reason we support each step in the direction of building-up independent working class organizations. Revolutionists must participate in such developments. They should participate in every stage of the process of politically rebuilding the labor movement, pushing all such efforts ahead while recognizing that new organizations do not become revolutionary in an instant. The consciousness of the masses must pass through intermediate steps such as forming political parties like SYRIZA, PODEMOS, and, here in Germany, the original WASG (West German predecessor of Die Linke), and then Die Linke. Even when they are partly reformist or simply politically confused, these intermediate steps represent stages towards the establishment of political class organizations. The examples we’ve given are useful approaches and it is crucial to push them ahead on both the political as well as the organizational level.

It is idle to claim that revolutionists should not soil their hands with such work but rather should remain ensconced in the ivory tower to better to proclaim their revolutionary truth. We, as revolutionists, are obligated to help the progressive sections of the class to draw the correct lessons, to recognize the necessity of the socialist reshaping of society.

This is why the SAV in Germany works not only as an organization of the united front inside the trade unions (that, for us, is self-evident) to demand more combative and democratic policies, but we also work as a Marxist tendency inside Die Linke and to resolutely advocate for left-wing positions. For instance, we argue there against participation in capitalist governments. We do not say: We are alone on the Left. Despite political differences, we join with other left tendencies in the anti-capitalist left. We harbor no illusions that the entirety of Die Linke could itself become a revolutionary party. Still, the development of Die Linke and the struggles that happen around it are important for the building-up of new class organizations and the development of consciousness.

We practice a dual task approach: building-up of the revolutionary organization and development of cadres, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, participation in and support for the rebuilding of the labor movement.

We do not see great chances for convincing the German CWI section (SAV) with our questions and arguments to stop their long established collaboration, through entryism, with Die Linke. Still, this question is part of an international debate, one that reemerges again and again. For instance, Worker’s Power, the British section of the League for the 5th International (L5I), fancies collaborating within the Labour Party, while the Greek section of the CWI supports the SYRIZA spin-off Popular Unity. Two former member organizations of ANTARSYA (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow) do the same thing.

Why should we believe that reformist, left-wing reformist, or centrist groups are “steps forwards to the building of class independent organizations”? The precondition for class independence is the conviction that wage-workers have interests completely different from those of the capitalist class and that it is therefore necessary to connect and coordinate their efforts in a way that is organizationally and politically independent of all bourgeois parties, institutions, and ideologies. This insight is itself already an element of revolutionary programmatics and organizing. By definition, reformist and left-wing reformist organizations—nevermind centrist groups—lack such independence. Work within such political forces therefore does not develop “class independence,” just as collaboration within corporatist trade unions changes nothing regarding co-management and the reformist character of wage struggles.

Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-austerity protest in London, 2015, where he receives the support from Stop the War Coalition.

Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-austerity protest in London, 2015, where he receives the support from Stop the War Coalition.

Trade unions, and for our point of view this is decisive, are by definition organizations that work inside the framework of the capitalist mode of production. The reason is that they are dedicated to the improvement of the conditions for the sale of labor power, whereas communism means overcoming the commodity form, overcoming the fact that labor power is a commodity. Accordingly, a political organization as defined by Lenin—and we assume that Trotskyist organizations such as the CWI claim to be Leninist—articulates “irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system.” (( Lenin, What is to be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 31. )) There are, of course, bourgeois political organizations that articulate completely different interests. But from the Marxist point of view the distinction between economic and political organizations (between trade unions and political parties) is justified just by the difference between working inside the framework of the capitalist mode of production, on the one hand, and the aim of transcending this framework, on the other. If this difference were not at stake, then it would indeed follow that we share the anarcho-syndicalists’ preference for a single organization, which is, at the same time, both a trade union and a political party.

It follows, then, that what is at stake when we criticize entryism is not getting one’s hands dirty. This happens within revolutionary political activism as well. So, the issue is not moral or hygienic purity, but political effectiveness. Why should it be effective to slave inside a reformist organization for years only to leave it in the end (or to be pushed out) and to move on to the next club? Should we not instead focus our limited resources on what is really intended? We agree with a paper of the Revolutionary Socialist Organization (RSO), which exists mainly in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, but which has a chapter in Manchester as well:

We are not interested in initiating left-reformist structures, as certain organizations from the Trotskyist tradition propose by covering their entry into a party with the slogan, “For a New Worker’s Party,” while the party being entered does not see itself in that way. . . [We certainly see] no sense in initiating a reformist organization ourselves in order to then have to argue inside that organization . . . in favor of revolutionary politics. Among other things, this risks, if we are not successful inside that organization, having to contend with a new organization that submits to the constraints of capitalism. Our focus should be on propagating revolutionary attitudes and the building-up of revolutionary structures as necessary vehicles for fundamental societal change. (( Available online at <> ))

Or, as another statement from the same paper maintains, “The foundation of each effective re-grouping is in our opinion a revolutionary program and revolutionary practice.” (( Ibid. ))

From our point of view, the optimum revolutionary activity is to make a revolution. The minimum is to act in a way that brings us closer to revolution. From this the question follows: What brings on the revolution? Is it being a member of a party (and justifying a party) that never talks about revolution? One that, so long as it is an opposition party, raises reformist illusions? And that, upon entering the government of any bourgeois state, conducts neoliberal policy? A party that articulates its analysis and political ideas in terms borrowed from bourgeois and social-democratic discourse, such as freedom, equality, social justice, and democracy, without referring to the class character of any state or democracy? A party that, if it talks about capitalism and anti-capitalism at all, constantly conflates neoliberalism with capitalism, lacking clear Marxist concepts of class rule, mode of production, relations of production, and so on?

Even if the conception of “stages of consciousness” that Behruzi elaborated were true, this need not imply that inside great reformist, left-wing reformist, and centrist organizations it is easier, or even possible, to radicalize each stage of consciousness. Why should it be easier to talk with people inside of an organization rather than outside? If such organizations really possess potential for radicalization, then they must be involved in street activism, in which case revolutionists can talk with members of that organization in the streets without joining them in the back room. So, unity of action in the realm of trade unions and social movements is a better alternative to entryism. Moreover, fliers can be distributed even when a demonstration or discussion meeting is not organized by an alliance, but only by a single organization.

Entryism has very low chances for success and high chances for failure. Typically, it ends with leaving the organization, being expelled, or assimilation to the host organization. Behruzi himself admitted as much in Frankfurt when he conceded, “We harbor no illusions that the entirety of Die Linke could itself become a revolutionary party.” So, then, why join at all? Why not only join, but build up reformist parties with the time, energy, effort and enthusiasm of revolutionaries, as the German CWI section did in the case of WASG and Die Linke in the Western areas of Germany? After all, there is a high price to pay for entryism. Within its framework there are greater obstacles to maintaining programmatic independence than there are with autonomous organizations plus alliances and a unity-action policy. There are limits to what can be said within reformist organizations. For instance, it would be pointless within the German Left Party to argue for smashing the bourgeois state apparatus. Not only does this argument fall on deaf ears, comrades who insist on it will lose other arguments as well. In addition, entryism often results in reduced visibility of one’s own organization, because activities are conducted under the name of the organization entered. A revolutionary minority inside a party dominated by reformists and gradualists is constantly faced with the devastating alternative: Either carry on trying to repell with motions, press releases, and emergency meetings the right’s latest attacks on the left wing of the party—their solo runs of the members of the party who do not uphold even the party’s few commitments, say—or let the right do what it wants, allowing them to dominate the representation of the party to the mass media and general audience.

Finally, though we are not in agreement amongst ourselves as to whether even Trotsky’s concept of short-time entryism was correct, it is clear that Trotsky never advocated long-term entryism within a reformist mass party.

Let’s now take up Behruzi’s theory of stages of consciousness and their links to different types of organizations, each with its own specific political character. Two questions arise here: 1. Are they (the theory and linking) logically consistent? 2. Are they supported by historical evidence? Because most left-wing people don’t like theoretical arguments, preferring instead to make a fetish of experience and practice, we start with historical examples. We chose those on which former leading members of the CWI they themselves rely. Still, it is necessary to raise the historical and theoretical foundations of the CWI, for which we rely on the booklet that the Revolutionary Socialist Organization (RSO) dedicated to a critique of the CWI and the IMT, the latter being a split-off from the CWI. (( Available online at <>. ))

Here again is the position Behruzi upheld at the Frankfurt Platypus panel, The consciousness of individuals may make leaps, but the consciousness of the masses—whether reformist, left-wing reformist, or centrist—traverses specific stages to each of which there corresponds a specific organizational expression, whether it be parties, tendencies, or other types of political organization. Given that, we support each step in the direction of building-up of independent working class organizations.

But it is not self-evident that revolutionaries should adapt their organizational structure to each stage of consciousness. Certainly, it is no less plausible to argue that communists should do everything for, and should focus their work on, having a resilient revolutionary organization at their disposal at the time when not only the vanguard, but the masses too, are ready for revolutionary ideas. Here is Ted Grant’s reasoning for the contrary position: “All history demonstrates that, at the first stages of revolutionary upsurge, the masses turn to the mass organizations to try and find a solution for their problems.” (( Ted Grant, “Problems of Entryism,” available online at <>. )) If this justifies collaboration with reformist mass organizations, then presumably this is so right up to the moment of revolutionary upsurge. Yet in Frankfurt, Behruzi upheld the thesis that the failure (as a socialist revolution) of the German November Revolution of 1918 was caused by, among other circumstances, the fact that no adequate revolutionary organization was available. Even today when the CWI seems willing to break with reformist mass organizations a little sooner than Grant, one of the forefathers of their tendency, was, they still uphold his thesis that, “The LP (British Labour Party), as the political expression of the organized trade union movement, represented the organized working class and sections of the unorganized workers as well. Thus the only way in which the work of revolutionists would not be stultified was within the mass milieu.“ (( Grant, “Problems of Entryism.” )) Today in Germany it is not the SPD, but Die Linke, with which we should collaborate, but what remains constant, the CWI maintains, is that, “workers inevitably radicalize themselves in the ‘traditional mass organizations.’” (( Available online at <>. )) 

Grant thus explicitly distances himself from the Leninist approach, which he termed “sectarian” and which he accused of lacking any basis in historical experience:

To the sectarian splinter groups on the edge of, or to the left of, the Fourth International . . . the problem is posed in the simplest of terms: Social Democracy and Stalinism have betrayed the working class; therefore the independent party of the working class must immediately be built. They claim the independence of the revolutionary party as a principle, whether the party consists of two or two million. (( Grant, “Problems of Entryism.” ))

Though we do not consider it fruitful to analyze abortive developments inside the labor movement by using the subjective-moralistic term “betrayal,” and though we would consider it presumptuous to call two, 20, or even 2,000 people a “party,” we are nevertheless convinced that the autonomous organization of revolutionaries remains a necessity.

Employing the dual-task strategy Behruzi outlined in Frankfurt, the SAV, the German section of the CWI, is an organization in its own right, with its own media, local groups, etc., instead of acting only as a current inside Die Linke. Yet, they still seem to maintain what Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the British section and member of the CWI’s International Secretariat, claimed in 1973, namely that Grant’s 1959, “Problems of Entryism,” “is rightly considered as a key document of the tendency, showing clearly where we differ from the sects in our perspective for the mass organizations,” and, “If the workers start to move, they will pour into the mass organizations.” (( Peter Taaffe quoted via <>. )) Our evidence for this is that the program of the German CWI section approved in 1999 and amended in 2005 states: “In the wake of intensified class conflict and development of class consciousness the recreation of a broad workers party will come. . . . SAV supports the building up of such party.” (( Available online at <>. )) In other words, for the CWI, “more intensive class conflicts” are likely to result at first in a “broad,” but not revolutionary, party, and presumably it will be correct to support the building-up of such a party. This is equivalent to what the Militant tendency, already in the time of its Labour Party entryism, claimed with only the word “broad” substituted for “mass.” As the RSO argues in their pamphlet “CWI und IMTDie Militant-Tendenz und ihre Nachfolger” [“CWI and IMTThe Militant Tendency and its Successor”]:

For decades Grant [today, the IMT] and Taaffe [still, the CWI] shared the same schematic conception of the consciousness of the masses. According to the Militant, it is a “general law,” that the masses, when they become active, “orientate towards great, well-known organizations, and again and again try to change them; only after countless attempts and only in the case of colossal historic events the working class will look out for alternatives.” This scheme, already propounded in “Problems of Entryism” eventually became the political foundation of the CWI. (( Available online at <> ))

For historical examples, we take reference to the IMT’s booklet, “Work in the Mass Organizations.” This seems legitimate to us given that the historical examples belong to an era before IMT’s split-off from CWI, an era when there was no difference between CWI and the later IMT. We also take it to be undisputed that the time around 1968 (especially in France) and 1974 (when the military dictatorship in Greece ended and the Carnation Revolution took place in Portugal) were periods of “more intense class struggle.” (( Available online at <>. )) All three examples—France, Portugal, and Greece—involved quite small parties that routinely employed radical rhetoric so that one could get the impression their approach would be “more left” than the approach of the great “in name only” Communist parties. Regarding this, we maintain the RSO’s position: “Through these examples the IMT-leadership disproves its own theory,” according to which the workers in the case of radicalization “inevitably” pour into the mass organizations.

The Parti Socialiste (PS) in France in 1968 (which‚ in the 1960s, received no more than 5% of the vote for president) was, like PASOK in Greece in 1974, a very small party. Yet regarding it, the IMT could say, “this party in the 1930s was a mass organization of the proletariat and [through it] the historical memory of the class has survived the past three decades and in this way social democracy is re-emerging onto the scene.”

Regarding the small French Parti Socialiste, which after 1968 massively increased, the IMT sought the line of least resistance. The Greek PASOK was the founding of a new party by the left wing of the bourgeois-liberal Union of Centrists and some small left-wing student groups that emerged during the military dictatorship. It was a party, in other words, that had nothing to do with the tradition of the Greek labor movement and its mass organizations. According to the IMT’s reasoning, the masses in France must have poured into the French Communist Party and the same in Greece. There should have been no place for small organizations at the margins, as the Parti Socialiste or a new left party such as PASOK. Contrary to what the IMT claims, the events of 1968 and 1974 do not show “the enormous reserves of support for the mass organizations,” but rather the enormous reserves that reformism in that situation had in the end, albeit a reformism with radical rhetoric. (( Available online at <>. ))

Before its election victory, PASOK demanded that Greece leave NATO and not join the European Community. When governing, neither happened, though a considerable quantity of social and anti-clerical reforms were implemented. The French PS in 1972 signed a common program with the French Communist Party and the left-liberal Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche, which announced “a transformation in the direction of socialism,” (( Programme Commun de Gouvernement du Parti Communiste Français et du Parti Socialiste (27 juin 1972) (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1972), 39. )) a “French way to socialism,” (( Ibid., 38. )) to be achieved by means of nationalizations, reduction of working time, and various other measures favored by left-wing social-democrats. One wing of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, (( <>. )) a trade union close to the PS, claimed that by the 1980s there would evolve collective, auto-gestionary organization by the workers of all enterprises.

As for the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP), it was not even founded until 1973. After the Carnation Revolution, the PSP developed from a party of cadres into “a people’s party.” As the RSO remarks, “The IMT leadership writes within its own text, that the Portuguese Socialist Party before 1974 was "hardly more as a sect of immigrants." The PSP had adopted an extreme left phraseology. Its leader Mário Soares even talked about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ giving expression to the revolutionary mood in the society.” (( Available online at <>. )) Although in 1975 the Portuguese Communist Party gained 12.5 percent of the votes, it was outshone by the PSP. (( Available online at <>. )) The new Portuguese constitution included the terms “socialism,” “socialist society,” and even “classless society.” From these examples we can draw some conclusions. First, in case of an intensification of class struggle, the people do not pour inevitably into already-existing, left-wing organizations (which in France in 1968 and in Greece in 1974 would have been the Communist party of each country). Second, if small organizations can make their name in such situations, then size is no argument for entryism within a reformist organization even when they employ radical rhetoric. It is not necessary to rest content with lip-service revolutionism, and it makes sense to offer a revolutionary option sooner rather than later, without the reformist intermediate step.

In the background of the theory of stages of consciousness is an evolutionist objectivism, which claims that wage workers evolve socialist consciousness automatically. The RSO criticizes this position as follows: “Grant’s alleged Marxist orthodoxy shares much in common with Karl Kautsky’s bending of Marxism into a ‘naturalist philosophy of evolution.’” While this critique addresses a quote from Alan Woods from the era after the split-off of the IMT from the CWI, nevertheless both the CWI and the IMT rely on it. The quotation runs as follows: “From a lifetime’s experience of exploitation and oppression, the working class, beginning with the active layers which lead the class, acquires a socialist consciousness. . . . The class struggle itself inevitably creates not only a class consciousness, but a socialist consciousness.“ (( Woods, Alan, “Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution,” available at )) The German CWI section, SAV, repeats this in its Grundsatzprogramm: “In the era of declining capitalism, primarily the conditions themselves . . . change the consciousness. . . . Through a series of generalized class struggles socialist consciousness will emerge.”

If socialist consciousness inevitably evolves out of class struggle, out of the mere “experience of exploitation” (the class struggle “from above”), why then is an organization, a party needed at all? Why bother debating different programmatic conceptions about which program is adequate to a given situation? For the Lenin of What is to be Done?, it was precisely the revolutionary party that, once Marx and Engels had laid the “foundation stone,” (( Lenin, “Our Programme” [1899], available online at <>. Lenin’s passage runs as follows:

There can be no strong socialist party without a revolutionary theory which unites all socialists, from which they draw all their convictions, and which they apply in their methods of struggle and means of action. To defend such a theory, which to the best of your knowledge you consider to be true, against unfounded attacks and at tempts to corrupt it is not to imply that you are an enemy of all criticism. We do not regard Marx’s theory as some thing completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we arc convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life. We think that an independent elaboration of Marx’s theory is especially essential for Russian socialists; for this theory provides only general guiding principles, which, in particular, are applied in England differently than in France, in France differently than in Germany, and in Germany differently than in Russia. We shall therefore gladly afford space in our paper for articles on theoretical questions and we invite all comrades openly to discuss controversial points. )) was the place for the “formulation” of the socialist ideology. Here’s how the RSO spells out the Leninist conception: “Not the intellectuals as a social group, as Kautsky in the tradition of enlightened philosophy claimed, brings socialism into the proletariat. Rather, the most conscious section of the class, which is together with other revolutionists united within a socialist organization of cadres, tries to develop socialist consciousness in other parts of the class.”

Considering the CWI’s substitution of the automatism of class struggle for the role of revolutionary organization, it is unsurprising that Alan Woods calls Lenin’s critique of spontaneism explicitly an “extremely lamentable theoretical slip” and a “one-sided and erroneous presentation of the relationship of the working class and socialist consciousness.” (( Woods, Alan, Bolshevism: Road to Revolution, quoted in <>, and available online at <>. )) If socialist consciousness inevitably evolved from class struggle, then within that imaginary world a revolutionary organization indeed is unnecessary for achieving the radicalization of the mass consciousness. Rather, it is sufficient to wait for workers to split off from their reformist mass organizations in consequence of the radicalization of their consciousness. The constitutive role played by revolutionary organization goes unrecognized on such a view, being demoted to serving as a mere technical instrument for the imposition of certain demands assumed to emerge independently.

Even if it were true that the mass consciousness developed on its own and led “inevitably” to socialist consciousness, it still would not follow that to each successive stage of consciousness there corresponds a definite organizational expression. Regarding how mass consciousness is displayed on the organizational level of politics, the RSO observes:

On the whole slew of new conditions—on the experiences that the proletariat in class struggles creates and the role of reformist organizations there; on whether the reformist organizations join the government and, when they do, whether hopes are still connected with that or only frustrations; on the international conditions, which can point in different directions; on the balances of political forces within the labor movement, i.e., whether there are relevant forces outside of the reformist parties that are more radical, that can become visible to the workers; etc.—all this in turn depends on whether such organizational alternatives were built up in time. For the consciousness of the masses is neither in its political aspect, nor its organizational aspect, a force of nature. In different historical situations it can, to varying degrees, be influenced by the subjective element, by revolutionary organization.

Finally regarding Beruzhi’s confession of being “against participation in capitalist governments”: Despite the fact that we share this conviction, we still want to ask: In the opinion of the CWI, was the SYRIZA-led government in Greece, even prior to the referendum, not a capitalist government? Was it correct to collaborate with it? Or was this government capitalist from the beginning? And was it not therefore a mistake for SYRIZA to join this government and for Tsipras to become prime minister? We, of course, claim that it was a mistake, since, as long as a government (even when it is composed of members of left parties) does not touch the private property of means of production (i.e., the social foundations of the question of power) and does not make itself into an instrument for smashing the existing state apparatus and replacing it with a new state apparatus based on council power, then it is still a capitalist government, a government that manages capitalist relations of production. Such a leftist government cannot be called a “workers’ government,” if we want to follow Trotsky’s definition of that term. For Trotsky, “workers’ government” was only a popular term for “dictatorship of the proletariat.” (( As Trotsky says in The Transitional Program, “This formula, ‘workers’ and farmers’ government,’ first appeared in the agitation of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and was definitely accepted after the October Revolution. In the final instance it represented nothing more than the popular designation for the already established dictatorship of the proletariat.” Available online at <>. ))

If the concept and practice of entryism makes any sense, it denotes an opportunity to exert revolutionary influence on the occasion of acute conflict inside a certain organization. It is only ever a short-term tactic. Long-term or “deep” entryism, as conceptualized and practiced by the CWI and the IMT, can only result in an adaptation to reformist political positions. Not only can it not yield the results that are claimed, it is an obstacle for building a revolutionary organization, which is in reality postponed indefinitely. Within our (post-)modern societal framework, moreover, there is an even more basic question, namely whether a revolutionary overthrow can be effectuated only in consequence of the contradiction of wage labor and capital, the view that gave a certain historical sense to Marxists’ strategic orientation towards reformist mass organizations, the dominant organizations of the classic labor movement. In the 21st century it seems more likely that the “revolutionary subject” is in fact variously configured revolutionary subjects, between which no ex ante common political connection exists except that all fight for the overcoming of domination and exploitation. Revolutionary organization seeking to meet current conditions should not only be a convergence of different Marxist tendencies, it should also employ different theoretical approaches drawing upon analyses of racism, feminism and psychoanalysis in order to develop a contemporary revolutionary program. This is indeed a demanding claim, but there is no revolutionary preparatory work that is simpler. |P