Socialist parties in almost every country are today experiencing a crisis which affects their thinking, structure, strategy and tactics. To understand the basic reasons for this, we have to glance at the parties’ original nature, their present state and their internal problems.
The Socialist movement began as a revolutionary protest, expressing a desire to build a new society. It linked together, as did the early Christian church, men who expected a revolutionary apocalypse and for whom the Party was their sole reason for being. Such was the case at the beginning of the Labor movement; in Great Britain, Chartism acted as a total movement engrossing all the activities of its militants. Even the Rochdale pioneers, who initiated the first consumers’ cooperative, saw in it a means of radically transforming the lives of their members and preparing themselves for an integrated society. Such was also the case in the United States where the Knights of Labor was both a union and political movement. In France, the Utopians of 1848, followed by the early Marxists, similarly sought to encompass the individual’s entire being, and Jules Guesde’s socialism endeavored to maintain control over the unions.
Today, this conception survives in the Communist party. The CP encompasses man’s entire life; its goal is to attain centralized state power so that, finally, it may forcibly transform society from above. To achieve this, any means are good, and individual preoccupations—including one’s professed moral values—must be subordinated to the interests of the Party.
But the working class, tired of waiting for the final apocalypse, began to act. At one and the same time, it obtained better conditions within the framework of existing society and began to transform society’s structure. As in the creation of the world, autonomous bodies emerged from the primitive socialist universe, increasingly independent of the state and the party and uncommitted to political action. First, unionism declared its independence. Whether it be early British trade-unionism, the AFL, or the French unionism of the Charter of Amiens, the working class declared its hostility to political action. Either it dreamed of a withering away of the state and the administration of industry by means of free workshops, or it was satisfied with exercising pressure on the political scene, rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies.
The party, limited to a narrower political sphere, also has had to modify its methods. Finding it impossible to maintain an attitude of opposition which had grown more and more sterile, it has had to take responsibility in government, either directly — as in Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries—or as part of a coalition government. But the party’s early structure made difficult the operation of the parliamentary system, especially in a coalition government. Insofar as the party was r...
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