The Mass Organizations

The entire history of the international workers' movement in the twentieth century has furnished us with a wealth of material to show the way in which the working class and its organizations move and develop. From the study of the workers' movement over several decades, we can draw the following inescapable conclusion: that when the mass of the workers enter the arena of struggle to change society, they inevitably gravitate, in the first instance, to the traditional mass organisations (trade unions, the labor, socialist, and communist parties where they exist). The reason for this phenomenon is not difficult to see. The mass of the workers – and even the greater part of the advanced elements of the class – do not learn from books, but only from experience, and particularly the experience of great events. Consequently, every generation of workers must re-learn through painful experience the lessons of the past.

As opposed to the vast majority of the other "Trotskyist" groups, the WIL believes that the workers when they move into action will not go towards some small grouping on the fringes of the Labor movement. They will move through their traditional mass organizations. The history of the international labor movement confirms this. The Third Communist International itself was not born of small sects, but developed from the left-wing of the Second Socialist International. The Bolsheviks were a faction of the same party as the Mensheviks for many years before emerging as an independent force. The French and Italian Communist Parties developed from within the Socialist Parties. The German Communist Party likewise gained its mass force from a split to the left of the SPD, etc.. etc. In Britain the Communist Party did emerge from the fusion of four smaller groupings. It is important to read Lenin's 'Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and note the advice Lenin gives to the British Communists. He advises them to go into the British Labour Party – the traditional mass party of the working class.

If we apply these lessons to today the conclusions we can reach is that genuine Marxists, i.e. Trotskyists must orientate towards the mass organizations. It is absolutely true that the current leadership of most of the trade unions and the Socialist, Communist, and Labor Parties around the world do not have the interests of the workers in mind.  They prefer to stick to their cushy jobs and buddy up to the bosses, betraying the aspirations of the workers at every turn. It is very easy to declare the official leadership as degenerate. However, the task is to build up an alternative. The question is this: is it sufficient to simply declare "the revolutionary party" and wait for the masses to come to you? We think not. Marxists must go to the workers and patiently explain an alternative. This is one of the main points that distinguishes us from all other groups claiming to be Trotskyist. We do not think this is a detail.

In "normal" periods of relative stability the masses are not involved in political activity. In fact they tend to see politics as something alien to them. In these periods it is only a minority of the workers and youth who are interested in political activity. Sometimes in fact this minority can actually become an obstacle to an involvement of the masses precisely because of their conservative and routinest approach.

If we look at the movement of the working class from a long historical viewpoint we see periods of revolutionary upheavals in which the mass of the workers come into activity. We have seen periods such as this in 1918-21, the 1930s, 1943-48, 1968-69, and into the early 1970s. What we saw was a revolutionary reawakening of the working class. Parties and trade unions which were small in terms of activists suddenly filled up.

But what happens when the movements that brought these parties into being ebbs? If the revolutionary aspirations of the masses are betrayed and the working class goes down to defeat we see a mass exodus from these parties. Only a rump remains active, and these quite often tend to be the elements more loyal to the party bureaucracy. They draw the wrong conclusions from the defeats and serve as a further brake on the workers and youth as a whole. In such a situation it becomes more difficult to defend revolutionary ideas and the Marxists find themselves more isolated. It is precisely in such a situation that ultra-left sectarian tendencies (as well as reformist ones) can develop.

But what we are most interested in here is the process whereby a layer of advanced workers in the movement can also develop sectarian ideas. Precisely because they are more advanced they would like to push the struggle forward. But because they do not have a Marxist understanding of how the movement develops they can become impatient with their own class.

At a time when the masses are not involved in politics, when they are not actively participating in the mass organizations, the leadership of these organizations can move over to the right. The workers after a period of defeats, or during a long boom such as in the period of the boom of the '50s and '60s, can tend to delegate politics to the leadership. Without an active participation of the masses it is not possible to put a check on the reformist leaders.

If we do not understand how the class moves then we can draw the wrong conclusions in such situations, as does a layer of more advanced workers. When there is an ebb in the movement this strengthens the bureaucracy of the trade unions and mass workers' parties. Some of the more advanced workers continue their struggle against this bureaucracy but do not find an echo among the ranks. From this they conclude that these organizations are too bureaucratic to work in and end up leaving them to set up new unions or parties with the idea of offering the working class an alternative. Unfortunately they find that outside the official organizations things are not so easy. That is because there is no short cut, no magic formula to resolving the problem. If there is an ebb in the movement due to past defeats you cannot simply resolve it by declaring an "independent" revolutionary party. The movement of the working class has its own tempo, its own timing. You cannot prematurely force it to move more quickly.

Obviously the presence of a mass revolutionary party can change things rapidly, but even the Bolsheviks back in 1917 did not immediately emerge as the dominant force in the working class. The workers needed to go through the experience of the Provisional government before they were prepared to follow the Bolsheviks. That explains why, initially, the Mensheviks were much stronger than the Bolsheviks. That explains why Lenin posed the tactic of the United Front. The Bolsheviks offered the Mensheviks and other workers' organizations a united front against the capitalists. They called on the Mensheviks to break with the bourgeoisie with their famous slogan "Out with the ten bourgeois ministers". This tactic combined with an implacable opposition to the Russian ruling class and their political representatives prepared the ground for the passing over of the mass of the workers to the Bolsheviks.

In the meantime does that mean that we sit and wait in party branches waiting for the masses to arrive? That would be ridiculous. In the conditions of today we must find channels to the most advanced workers and youth. We must intervene in working class and student struggles and offer an alternative. On this basis we can build up the forces to build a Marxist tendency to prepare to intervene in the mass organizations in the future. That is why we have to develop flexible tactics, but without abandoning the fundamental perspective on the traditional mass organizations of the working class.

Today, at least in most of the advanced capitalist countries, the conditions for a rapid development of a mass Marxist party do not exist. In the US, a mass party of labor does not even exist yet, and many workers still have illusions in the Democratic Party (which is a capitalist party through and through which can never be reformed in the interests of the workers). This is why one of our most important programmatic demands is that the trade unions break with the Democratic Party and set up their own party which an fight in the interests of working people. There are still big illusions in reformism. These will not go away simply by declaring the revolutionary party. But the illusions of the masses will be torn down by event themselves. Capitalism has entered a period of great convulsions. Big movements will take place. The workers will put their traditional mass organizations to the test. Over a period of years they will come to the conclusion that the leaders of these organizations offer no real alternative. The workers will put pressure on these organizations and a process of radicalization will take place similar to what happened after the First World War, in the 1930s, after the Second World War and in the 1970s. On that basis with a correct orientation a small Marxist force can begin to grow rapidly. But to achieve that, the nucleus of that Marxist force must be built now. That is why now we must work to win the best workers and youth, while at the same time maintaining a perspective for the future developments inside the mass organizations.

Recommended further reading:

Want to get involved? Drop us a line to join the fight for socialism in our lifetime:

Donate to Socialist Revolution

Socialist Revolution Cover Fight Police Terror with Revolution


Socialist Revolution is the official publication of the US Section of the International Marxist Tendency.
Contact us at or 646-791-6279