Pambazuka News | June 15, 2017
Recognising the structural basis of the organisational failure of the socialist movement is necessary for arriving at a correct conception of the organisational challenge confronting the movement. Explaining this failure by the contingent factors commonly adduced, it is only possible to arrive at a structuralist and mechanistic conception of the challenge. Only by recognising the structural character of the failure is it possible to realise that the challenge before the movement is to transform itself into an organic element and instrument in the struggle of the oppressed.
Problematising the challenge
The Nigerian socialist movement has always recognised the imperative of organisation, but only as an unmediated fact of the social conflict, not as a mediated problem of praxis that requires the expenditure of any serious mental energy. Thus, we cannot find in the literature of the movement that grappling with the problematics of organisation such as we find in, for instance, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane, or Mao Zedong. We do not find that wrestling as with a problem of vital import for the social conflict in which the movement is involved, a matter of life and death for the struggle and its cadres, not one of merely theoretical interest. This absence is due to the abstractness and artificiality of the movement’s connections with the practical struggles of the oppressed.
One gets the unshakeable impression on reading the available literature of the Nigerian socialist movement that it considers the question of organisation a matter long settled in the debates during the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and in the argument between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. The Leninist conception of the socialist party having been formulated in those exchanges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is now simply a matter of setting up such a party in Nigeria.
However, the party is considered predominantly only in terms of structure, as a self-contained structure of relatively stable operational relations among a group of persons in the coordinated pursuit of socialist goals. The more vital element of social function is lost to sight. There is precious little evidence that the thinkers of the Nigerian socialist movement have made any serious effort to grasp the party in its aspect as a tool of collective agency in the social conflict. This question of the party as interventional capacity, which constitutes the very essence of the revolutionary socialist party, which makes the party a living entity pulsing with the very vitality of the struggle of the oppressed and depending on the imperatives of this struggle for its very being and form, has occupied little if any space in the literature of the movement. Thus, for the socialist movement the challenge of organisation has predominantly been conceived simply in terms of how to overcome the interpersonal, ideological, programmatic, and strategy disagreements among socialists sufficiently to enable the building of a united socialist political party.
There has been little concern with the problematics of the relationship between the party and the masses, the problematics of not only how theory (embodied in the party) grips the masses but also how the masses take hold of theory and make it into their own weapon in their struggle against their oppressors.
Yet it is precisely this latter set of problematics that must be of graver importance for a socialist movement that is genuinely intent on making revolution. For such a movement, organisation is in essence an instrument of intervention in the social conflict, with the problematics of structure (i.e., the definition of stable relations amongst members on the basis of a formal division of labour and powers in pursuit of common goals) deriving their relevance and logic only and entirely from this function. Theory does not grip the masses by the elegance or efficiency of its architecture but by its instrumentality in expressing their interests and concerns and in enabling the realisation of these.
That is to say, the touchstone of organisation is its effectiveness and efficiency as a weapon in the hands of the oppressed in their struggle against oppression. The central problematics of organisation therefore must concern its relationship to that struggle: to what extent does it express the consciousness and interests of the oppressed, to what extent is it effective in protecting and advancing those interests and consciousness, to what extent are its structure and operations determined and shaped by the struggle of the oppressed, to what extent is it a weapon in their own hand for their own self-liberation, to what extent is it the people themselves organised for their own struggle? In one word, does the organisation have an organic relationship to the oppressed and their struggle, does its life, logic, structure, and operation flow dialectically from that struggle?
Thus, the challenge of organisation cannot be seen merely in terms of overcoming the disagreements among Nigerian socialists and setting up a structure and system of rules that everyone can accept to work within. No one denies that these issues are of the utmost importance, but giving primacy to these questions of structure over those of organic function results in an elitist and, it must be said, bureaucratic conception of the party. Such a conception can only result in a party that is more or less divorced from the oppressed themselves and from their struggles. Which is not to say that such a party does not become involved in those struggles but that it functions not as an instrument and measure of the interventional capacity of the oppressed in their own struggle but as the interventional instrument of an alien – sympathetic but still alien – social force in that struggle on behalf of the oppressed. Its ultimate product can only be a dictatorship of the party over the oppressed rather than a dictatorship of the working people over their former oppressors.
In contrast, we understand the challenge of organisation in terms of the practical and immediate necessity to reconstitute the socialist movement as a body of independent, more or less stable, and coherent socialist organisations capable of effective effort to connect with, learn from, and influence the oppressed social forces in their struggles against the bourgeoisie and imperialism, all of this in strict consistency with the transcendent interests of the proletariat. In this conception, we hold from the start that the purpose of organisation is the achievement and enhancement of interventional capacity in the social conflict. Effective organisation, therefore, cannot be merely the existence of structured relations among certain persons for the purpose of intervening in the social conflict. It must be the achievement of the capacity to do so effectively; which for a revolutionary socialist movement means the capacity to organise and lead the oppressed on both a national and global basis; which in turn means giving primacy to the task of establishing an organic relationship between the party and the struggle of the oppressed. This latter is meaningless if it does not mean the party becoming the working people themselves organised for their own struggle.
This organic conception of the challenge of organisation transcends the elitist-bureaucratic conception in the sense that the structural aspect of the question (i.e., the setting up of the structured relations among members) is not absolutised but absorbed as a subordinate and relative moment in the by far more important task of building a weapon of intervention in the hands of the oppressed themselves. Thus, the challenge of organisation confronting the Nigerian socialist movement is not merely to create a socialist party but to create a party that is really nothing less than the oppressed themselves organised for their own struggle, i.e., an organic party of the oppressed.
If in the final analysis the imperative of socialist organisation in Nigeria today issues from the imperative of socialist revolution, the implication of all we have said above is that this latter imperative provides the vital key to the building of a socialist movement with organic links to the oppressed and their struggle. For if socialist revolution is the necessary historical means by which the oppressed can save themselves from the complete barbarisation and dehumanisation of their existence, it follows that the socialist organisation wishing to build organic links with them must be completely and utterly their instrument in the struggle for that revolution. It must be the oppressed themselves organised for the making of their revolution. It cannot be, as socialist organisations in Nigeria have tended to be, a mere instrument for the intervention in that struggle by extraneous revolutionists or for the internalisation of alien conflicts in the domestic conflict. It follows also that the party must subject itself completely to discipline by the imperatives of the struggle in which the oppressed are actually involved rather than those of an alien struggle.
If revolutionary organisation both receives its own imperative from the imperative of revolution and serves as the mediating link between the consciousness of this revolutionary imperative and its realisation in practice, it – i.e., revolutionary organisation – must be nothing but a constant grappling with the issues, challenges, problems, and tasks thrown up by the struggle to realise this latter imperative, i.e., to make the revolution, in the face of the recalcitrance of the bourgeoisie and imperialism. Otherwise, it cannot be an effective means of intervention by the oppressed in their own struggle. For we must understand from the start that the socialist movement cannot build organic relations with the oppressed unless revolutionary organisation becomes for them not just in theory but also in practice a means of creating and enhancing their own interventional capacity in the social conflict on their own behalf and in their own interest.
These principles at once imply certain organisational necessities. First, the organisations of the socialist movement must be completely and directly involved in the struggles of the oppressed, working with them to identify and articulate their concerns and interests, organising them, leading them in their practical engagements with the oppressor, developing their class consciousness, building their confidence in themselves as their own liberators and salvation, enhancing their capacity to act effectively on this confidence. This direct and complete interaction between the socialist organisation and the oppressed is an absolute necessity for the building of organic relations between them, for it is the very process that builds them into a unified social force in the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and its own allied forces. The organisation becomes not merely an instrument of intervention by a sympathetic but nevertheless alien group of revolutionists in the struggle of the oppressed, but begins to become the instrument of the oppressed themselves for their own effective intervention in their own struggle.
Second, the socialist movement aiming to become an organic instrument of the oppressed must draw the masses of the oppressed into its ranks, i.e., it must develop mass membership among the oppressed. It is, of course, understood that the socialist vanguard party will necessarily include only members of the proletariat who have developed revolutionary class consciousness and a commitment to preparing and leading the proletariat to make socialist revolution and to build socialism. However, the socialist movement as a whole must work from the first to expand itself beyond this vanguard party. It must identify mass organisations in which the mass of the oppressed are already waging their struggles and work to bring them into the socialist movement – i.e., win them to subscribe to a socialist programme – or it must create new mass organisations addressing pressing issues of concern among the masses and work to recruit the masses of the oppressed into them.
Third, and parallel to the second point above, the vanguard party itself must identify and recruit class-conscious revolutionaries from these mass organisations into its own ranks and must work to develop them into cadres and leaders of the party, providing them with the training and knowledge they require to lead the party and the mass of the oppressed in the struggle for revolution.
Fourth, the vanguard party must develop and enforce a revolutionary morality and discipline whose substance and logic flow from the dictates of the struggle itself, and by its example and work it must help the oppressed organised in the mass organisations of the socialist movement to do this as well. This includes the practice of revolutionary inner-party democracy, transparency, rule of law, and effective checks and balances founded on the principle of majority sovereignty.
Fifth, and finally, the vanguard party and the mass organisations of the movement must develop strategic self-dependence in financing their operations.
It might be objected that these basic principles of organic revolutionary organisation are already very well-known. That is indeed true: revolutionary struggles in the past two hundred years in the capitalist centre and periphery have reaffirmed and demonstrated repeatedly the universal validity of these principles. That is precisely why it is surely one of the most terrible tragedies – the less charitable might say, “crimes” – of the Nigerian socialist movement that it has consistently failed – let us not say, “refused” – over the decades of its history to apply them in its efforts at self-organisation. Not even in the most successful of its organising efforts – that of the 1980s – did the movement really apply them as consistently and completely as required. Whatever else one might deduce from this failure, it undoubtedly betrays the fact that the movement – for all its talk of revolution – has never treated the question of organisation with anything near the seriousness it deserves, which itself lends a hollow and false ring to its revolutionism. For, as Georg Lukács so aptly put it,
“Organisation is the form of mediation between theory and practice…Every ‘theoretical’ tendency…must immediately develop an organisational arm if it is to rise above the level of pure theory or abstract opinion, that is to say, if it really intends to point the way to its own fulfilment in practice.”
The goal of socialist revolution demands revolutionary practice. One aspect in which the socialist revolution differs radically from the bourgeois revolution is the greater, indeed critical, role of conscious, mediated, human activity in bringing it about, in contrast to the spontaneous and immediate action that was sufficient for the latter. Revolutionary organisation, which is the objectification of the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat, is thus of infinitely greater significance in the socialist revolution. For it is the critical mediating link between the theoretical recognition of the imperative of revolution and the actualisation of revolution. Anyone is therefore entitled to question the genuineness of the revolutionary talk of a socialist movement that gives short shrift to the challenge of organisation.
That the Nigerian socialist movement does precisely this is seen in its purely structuralist, technical, and, therefore, abstract conception of that challenge, which conception itself reveals the movement’s purely abstract recognition of the imperative of socialist revolution. For the movement, the revolution has always been an abstract, theoretical proposition, not a concrete, practical necessity.
Having said this, it must be recognised that the above prescriptions for building the organic socialist party might require some clarification. For instance, does not this notion of “the revolutionary organisation as the oppressed themselves organised for their struggle” obliterate the necessary distinction between the vanguard and the mass, thus rejecting the very concept of the Leninist vanguard party? Is it not the product of a romanticisation of the masses and an idealisation of their spontaneous revolutionary potential?
These issues go to the very heart of the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historical necessity of the emancipation of the working class being the work of the working class itself, and, on the other, the no less historical fact of the proletariat being subordinated under the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The Leninist vanguard party is based on the conclusion – whose correctness has been demonstrated in every capitalist society – that the proletariat cannot on its own attain revolutionary class consciousness under conditions of bourgeois society. For, although all consciousness in class-based social formations is necessarily class-conditioned, not every class-conditioned consciousness is class consciousness. In fact, the class-conditioned consciousness generated spontaneously by any such formation is necessarily an expression of the social relations underlying the formation and of the social conditions produced by those relations. It is thus fundamentally an expression of the social interests embodied in those relations, i.e., the interests of the ruling class, making any spontaneous class-conditioned consciousness in essence the consciousness of the ruling class.
Thus, although the relatively developed forms of the spontaneous class-conditioned consciousness of the proletariat typically include an awareness of an opposition between the interests of capital and labour, this consciousness nevertheless takes this opposition as given. This is because it accepts and takes as given the material premises of bourgeois society, i.e., bourgeois property relations and the entire network of bourgeois social relations. In this consciousness, therefore, the struggle of the working class for emancipation must remain within those premises, must not call into question the essence of bourgeois social relations, including bourgeois property (whether in its private or collective forms). For those premises are the very earth upon which it stands, its irreducible necessity for existence, its very existential substance. This consciousness is completely bourgeois and is only class-conditioned by the immanent interests of the proletariat, i.e., precisely those interests of the class that presuppose bourgeois social relations, that can be realised within those relations, and that in fact define the working class as a class of bourgeois society and as merely a necessary factor in the accumulation of capital.
Given that this spontaneous consciousness takes bourgeois property and the profit motive as given, the utmost the proletariat can aspire to under its sway is a radical reformism that distributes a larger portion of the social surplus to the working class and other exploited classes and strata, without nevertheless abolishing wage slavery and class exploitation.
Lenin conceived of the socialist party as a vanguard detachment of the proletariat, composed of persons – members of the proletariat by class origins or social affiliation – who have attained revolutionary proletarian class consciousness, i.e., consciousness and commitment to the transcendent interests of the proletariat, those interests that demand the overthrow and abolition of bourgeois social relations. One function of the Leninist vanguard party was to bring this consciousness to the proletariat in its interaction with the class in the course of the class struggle. The party was to help the class come to the understanding that its liberation not only had to be its own work but also required the abolition of bourgeois property and all bourgeois social relations, and their replacement with communist relations. In order to play this role effectively, the party had to restrict membership only to proletarians who had attained this revolutionary class consciousness, and who were committed to helping the entire class or its largest possible portions to develop this consciousness and to organising and leading them to make socialist revolution and to build a socialist society.
Thus, the Leninist party is both an extrusion and extraction from the working class and from all other classes and groups of the oppressed, insofar as its members are drawn from these classes and groups. It is the oppressed themselves organised for their self-liberation, not in their multitudinous masses but in their best and most advanced elements. It is the oppressed putting their best foot forward. For its members themselves are the representation of the oppressed, whether by class origin or by class suicide.
What is the challenge?
The challenge of organisation facing the Nigerian socialist movement is not that of political organisation in general but of revolutionary organisation in particular. This derives logically from the revolutionary task confronting the movement: from the imperative of revolution flows that of revolutionary organisation. That means that the objective must be to build a movement capable of making successful revolution, not merely of intervening in the social conflict. Organisational planning and construction must be rationalised according to the demands of the imperative of revolution, must be subject to the demands of making a socialist revolution.
Making a socialist revolution demands drawing the mass of the oppressed into the social conflict and raising their struggle to a socialist revolutionary struggle, above and beyond the system-safe spontaneity and reformism it can only achieve by itself. This at once means the need, on the one hand, to build a socialist mass movement out of the most advanced and class-conscious elements of the numerous streams of the spontaneous and reformist struggles of the oppressed. On the other, it means the need to build a vanguard (comprising one or more revolutionary socialist parties) to provide leadership for the entire mass movement in all its strands – socialist-revolutionary, reformist, and spontaneous. The organisational challenge confronting the Nigerian socialist movement is, therefore, not merely that of building a socialist party, whether to offer a socialist electoral alternative to the oppressed or to lead them in a revolutionary struggle. The challenge is rather to build a revolutionary socialist movement with an organic relationship with the masses of all the oppressed social classes and groups in Nigeria, with the former acting as an engine pulling the latter (which constitutes the body of the vehicle) in its wake towards revolution and with its vanguard element acting as the driver of the engine. In this broad conception, the whole body of the struggle against Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalism and its ruling powers comprises three elements:
1. The broad spontaneous mass of the oppressed who, under a wide variety of spontaneous or reformist ideologies, engage in a wide range of non-socialist struggles against the ills of Nigeria’s neo-colonial formation (economic, political, human rights, gender, ethno-national, ethical, and developmental),
2. A narrower, socialist mass movement of class-conscious individuals and organisations drawn from every stream of protest and opposition in the broad-based mass struggle and engaged in the struggle to seize political power from the ruling bloc of the domestic bourgeoisie and foreign monopoly capital in order to replace the neo-colonial capitalist relations with socialist ones, thus serving ideologically as the vanguard of the broad spontaneous mass struggle and organisationally as the oppressed masses organised for their revolutionary self-emancipation, and
3. A socialist revolutionary vanguard anchored on the transcendent interests of the proletariat, comprising the most advanced, committed, and disciplined elements of the socialist movement, and serving as the advanced detachment of the entire anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement (comprising the mass socialist movement and the entire oppressed masses) in the struggle to effect a socialist revolution and build a socialist society
This broad conception of the organisational challenge situates it within the context of the struggle for revolution, ties it concretely and immediately to the imperative of socialist revolution, and thereby renders imperative the building of revolutionary organic relationships with the oppressed. It thus provides the solution to the persistent organisational failure of the Nigerian socialist movement. In contrast, the narrow conception at best only implies abstractly and remotely the imperative of socialist revolution and therefore can pretty well be met without building organic links with the oppressed masses, or without those links being of a revolutionary character. It is therefore a prescription for the reproduction of the movement’s historical failure of organisation.
An essential implication of the imperative of revolutionary organisation is that the revolutionary organisation must be conceived, constructed, and operated in such a manner as to enable it meet the challenges and threats involved in the struggle to fulfil its mission of making socialist revolution and building a socialist society. It must be able also to take advantage of the opportunities offered in the many and often sudden twists and turns of this struggle. Otherwise, it cannot fulfil this mission. This applies generally to the socialist movement in both its mass and vanguard (or “core”) elements but more particularly to the latter, which is the cornerstone of the resiliency, continuity, and steadfastness of the movement and of the entire anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle.
Herein lays the superiority of the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party over all the alternatives before or after it to date. It is constructed on a materialist and concrete understanding of two vital issues. First, is the issue of the character of bourgeois state-power and of its exercise to protect bourgeois society against insurgency and revolution. Second, is that of the power of bourgeois ideological dominance over the working class and other oppressed masses and of the necessary process by which these classes and masses can develop the revolutionary consciousness necessary for successful revolution. There are undoubtedly many elements in Lenin’s organisational prescriptions for the Russian socialist movement that derive from the particular circumstances of the autocratic rule of the time. However, the essence of his conception remains universally valid today because it is based on the essential characteristics of bourgeois society and bourgeois state-power – characteristics that remain the same today except insofar as they have become more sharply defined and developed than they were in Lenin’s times.
Who today can deny the validity of his thesis that neither the proletariat – the only truly revolutionary class by its structural position and role in capitalist society – nor the other oppressed social groups of capitalist society can by themselves develop revolutionary socialist consciousness, that this consciousness must be brought to them from the outside? Quite in spite of the deepening severity and persistence of the structural crisis of global capitalism over the decades, universal commodification in the form of the social relations of capitalist society continue spontaneously to generate a reified bourgeois consciousness in all classes of society. The class-conditioning of this spontaneous consciousness in the case of any particular class of the oppressed does not eradicate its bourgeois essence but merely lends it a slant or perspective influenced by the immediate material conditions as directly experienced by that class, while the basic terms and premises of the consciousness remain as determined by the existing social relations. It is true that the class struggle generally enables sections of the oppressed to rise above this spontaneous consciousness to a simple sort of class consciousness in which they become aware of their class being and interests and of a distinction and even opposition between the latter and those of the bourgeoisie and other classes. This consciousness, however, retains the terms and premises defined by bourgeois social relations and generally accepts their historical, moral, and functional legitimacy, never calling them into question in their essence.
Revolutionary socialist consciousness still has to be brought to the working class and other oppressed masses by the revolutionary vanguard. For this consciousness requires advanced knowledge of the structure and workings of bourgeois society, a type of knowledge that penetrates and overcomes the reification of subjective and objective structures that is spontaneously generated by bourgeois commodity production. The structural divorce of mental and manual labour in bourgeois society and the restriction of the labouring classes primarily to the latter denies them this type of knowledge, a type that therefore cannot come from the practical class struggle alone. Thus, the oppressed masses of bourgeois society cannot on their own develop a stable consciousness higher than the simple or reformist class consciousness described above; and they will tend to fall down to it again even after an episode of particularly sharp struggle against the bourgeoisie has temporarily elevated it to revolutionary levels.
This validates the Leninist insistence that the revolutionary vanguard party cannot be open to everyone simply insofar as they accept its programme and perspective, that it must comprise only of persons who have achieved and demonstrated a stable revolutionary consciousness and unwavering commitment to the making of socialist revolution. In other words, the Leninist revolutionary party cannot be a mass party but only a cadre party of advanced and committed revolutionaries; only thus can it avoid becoming polluted with the spontaneous and reformist consciousness of the popular masses, only thus can it influence and lead their struggle along the consistently revolutionary path.
Similarly, who today can deny the validity of the second principal thesis of the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party – that in order to survive the inevitable counter-insurgency attacks by the bourgeois state, it must be organised so that it is able to operate in conditions of legality or illegality and must, therefore, be founded on principles of strict secrecy and the highest standards of centralisation and internal discipline? Events in the first half of the 20th century proffered preliminary evidence of this validity. The Russian party was able not only to survive persistent repression by the czarist state but also to make a successful socialist revolution in 1917. In contrast, the German – easily the most advanced at the time, and much admired by Lenin – not only failed to make a revolution in 1918 but also did not survive the Nazi repression in 1933, despite its mass base and armed militia.
The repressive power of the bourgeois state is infinitely greater today and its “black operations” and other counter-insurgency capabilities have grown and been refined beyond compare. The intensifying and globalising revolt generated by the deepening and persistent (some insist on “permanent”) structural crisis of global capitalism today represents a growing albeit still ineffective threat to capitalism. Should it acquire a certain level of ideological clarity and organisational definition and stability, however, it could become a revolutionary challenge to the structural foundations of the system. This has undeniably caused the imperialist bourgeoisie to rely more than ever before on the repressive element of its global strategy and it has left no one in any doubt of its willingness and ability to deploy the vastly increased powers of the state with increasing effectiveness and efficiency against all subversive forces, whether of a socialist or non-socialist character. Thus, we witness across the world a serious erosion of the democratic content of bourgeois democracy, the weakening of guarantees of human rights, and the increasing resort to state violence against the masses who rise in revolt against their oppression and exploitation.
The first implication of all this is that the legal road to socialism (i.e., by bourgeois electoral democracy) is revealed finally for the illusion that it has always been. Thus, the role of the legal socialist mass party cannot be anything other than to exploit every opportunity offered by bourgeois democracy for legal work to develop revolutionary consciousness in the oppressed masses and to guide their political activity towards revolution.
The second implication is that the revolutionary socialist movement must retain the organisational ability to resort to illegal work when legal work becomes impossible. Indeed, the movement must prioritise this ability above everything else. This is because it is the guarantee of its physical survival and of the continuity of its revolutionary leadership of the mass struggle under conditions of bourgeois repression. The Leninist vanguard party is precisely the embodiment of this capacity.
What is a revolutionary party?
In respect of party-building then, the imperative of revolutionary organisation implies two tasks: to build a mass party and a vanguard party. The one is necessary to exploit every opportunity available within the limits of bourgeois legality to draw the oppressed masses into the political struggle and to develop revolutionary consciousness in them, and the other to provide consistent revolutionary leadership for the struggle of the oppressed and provide the socialist movement with the capacity for work in illegality.
Neither of these party-forms exists in Nigeria at this time. This is obvious in the case of the socialist mass party: neither the Democratic Alternative (DA) nor the National Conscience Party (NCP) or any of the other legal parties that espouse socialism has developed into a mass party in actuality. The fact of the non-existence of the revolutionary vanguard party is less obvious because a number of socialist organisations today lay claim to being a (or even “the”) revolutionary vanguard party of the Nigerian working class.
Putting aside the question whether any of them is truly revolutionary in anything but aspiration, there is that of whether they are indeed parties in the proletarian sense. The proletarian party of revolution is qualitatively different from the bourgeois political party. Subject to satisfying certain legal requirements, a bourgeois organisation becomes a political party merely by dedicating itself to the pursuit of the capture and exercise of the government (the instrument of control over the bourgeois state) in order to implement a programme of socio-economic policies and measures. Its existence rests on legal formality and its relationship with the bourgeoisie is essentially formal. The case is different with the proletarian party of revolution. Revolution is illegal by definition, and the revolutionary party cannot exist on the basis of legal formality but only in concrete actuality. Given its revolutionary purpose, the party cannot be simply any organisation that decides to call itself a party; on the contrary, it must be an organisation that indeed has the capacity to make revolution. Since revolution can only be the work of the oppressed masses, this means the party of revolution must possess the capacity to mobilise, organise, develop, and lead them for this purpose.
Thus, at the very least it must have ideological, programmatic, strategic, and practical influence over a significant portion of the mass of workers in their struggle against capitalism. In addition, however – because this is the very essence of revolution – it must have the capacity to act as the tool of the working class in its self-constitution as the ruling power, to organise the class to seize and wield power. That is, the organisation must have the capacity, first, to realise (mobilise, direct, concentrate, and apply) the coercive force of the working class and other oppressed classes and groups against the bourgeois state as well as the non-state (informal) repressive forces of the bourgeoisie and its allies, and, second, to organise the working class into a new state power to rule over the defeated class bloc and the whole of society.
In light of this, that aspect of the challenge of organisation which involves the formation of the revolutionary socialist party – whether of the mass type or the vanguard type – cannot be conceived in terms of the mere coming together of socialists in an organisation on the basis of agreement on a perspective, programme, strategy, and tactics. Such an organisation would be a cell, a study group, or some such base structure, not a socialist party. It still would not constitute a party even if it replicated itself countless times in urban and rural centres across the country without however acquiring the sustained capacity to influence the practical struggles of the working class in terms of their goals, perspectives, and strategies. It would only be a party by name or aspiration.
Mass party or vanguard party?
Having said this, we still have to address the problem of priority posed by the duality of the organisational task facing the Nigerian socialist movement. In one word, the question is this: since neither a socialist mass party nor a vanguard party exists today, the building of which should the movement attend to first? We do not hesitate to answer that it should be the vanguard party. It is apparent from what has been said above that the vanguard party has strategic organisational priority over the mass party. As we have said above, revolution – the first strategic aim of any revolutionary socialist movement – is illegal, unlawful, forbidden. That being so, the movement must give priority to its organisational ability to achieve this unlawful aim. Bourgeois democracy in the imperialist epoch allows room for propaganda and agitational work to raise the class consciousness of the workers and other oppressed groups – but not for the making of revolution. Indeed, it operates to co-opt the socialist movement into the mechanism for the reproduction of capitalist society – and a legal socialist movement that will not serve this purpose must perish. The whole history of Euro-communism and labour socialism is eloquent proof of this, and the history of Popular Unity socialism in Chile a tragic proof of it.
The electoral, non-revolutionary road to socialism is an illusion. For the revolutionary socialist movement, therefore, participation in bourgeois electoral politics is a tactical, not a strategic, operation, and the instrument or vehicle of this operation – the socialist mass party – is only a tactical organisational form in so far as it is conceived as a vehicle of electoral politics.  And the revolutionary vanguard party is the only guarantee that this tactical operation will not become a strategic one, that policy does not become principle, that the socialist movement does not become absorbed into the mechanism of capitalist reproduction. It is thus the guarantee of the continuity of the revolutionary struggle and of the revolutionary socialist movement itself – including the socialist mass party – as a going enterprise. For when the structural crisis of capitalism creates a revolutionary situation – as it is wont to do with such frequency in the periphery of the system – and the capitalist class unleashes repressive violence against the insurgent masses, it is often only the revolutionary vanguard party that remains standing in the socialist movement by the time the raging storm is over.
Then there is the fact that the mass party must be legal in order to exploit the opportunities offered by legality to draw the oppressed into the political struggle and to develop their consciousness. Meeting the requirements for initial and continued party registration – the conditions for legality – has proved onerous to the various socialist organisations that gained registration as political parties in Nigeria. The de-registration of some of them by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) represents a monumental waste of the resources in money, time, and effort poured into securing their initial registration. Although this de-registration has been presented as only an administrative exercise, the fact is that there has been pressure from within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) since the first years of this regime of civilian rule to constrict the political space by limiting the number of parties that can participate in the electoral contest.
This pressure will probably increase with the expansion and radicalisation of the mass struggle against oppression, exploitation, and immiseration by the Nigerian ruling class. In the absence of an effective counter to INEC’s powers of party de-registration, the gathering tendency towards a two-party system will not eventuate merely in the dominance of two bourgeois parties but probably in the complete extermination of all other parties as they become increasingly unable to meet the conditions to remain registered. This dire scenario may not attain complete realisation in every particular detail, but there can be little doubt that INEC’s powers of registration and de-registration – which could be expanded and increased – allows the bourgeoisie to deny registration to a socialist mass party or to annul it with a stroke of the pen where it had already been granted. It makes more sense therefore to devote the massive resources that would thus be put at such great risk to the safer project of building a revolutionary vanguard party, safer because the key factors determining its success would be under the control of the socialist movement.
Finally, there is no guarantee that a military coup will not occur at any moment, resulting in the banning of all political activities – including the operation of parties. The current bourgeois civilian regime is not only a pauper’s gruel in terms of its democratic content; it is also an extremely anaemic sapling with only the shallowest and most gossamery network of roots in the democratic earth. The lightest storm of hail could easily crush it and the lightest flash flood could easily wash it away. With the rising public concern over the increasingly apparent ineptitude of the civilian regime to deal with the growing atmosphere of insecurity, the decline in public services, the barbarisation of social life, and the raging monster of corruption, few would deny that a storm is indeed gathering. There are important factors that oppose the immediate probability of this resulting in a military coup d’état, including popular memory of the bitter years of military rule and the interests of imperialism and of domestic capital. This could easily change however should the country’s slide towards anarchy become so grave as to seriously jeopardise the process of capital accumulation, the security interests of foreign monopoly capital in the country, or the possibility of continuing the daily routines of life by the ordinary Nigerian. Then the promise of stability and security that a coup d’état would offer – no matter how insincerely or unrealistically – would become very attractive to imperialism, domestic private capital, and even the average citizen.
Even if a coup does not occur, such a situation would encourage and strengthen the already-evident tendency towards civilian authoritarianism in the governance of the country. In either case, the upshot would be the further erosion of democratic and human rights guarantees and, probably, a repression of radical tendencies in the polity. In other words, room for open, lawful, and free work by a socialist mass party would probably narrow so much as to make it ineffective and meaningless. Only illegal revolutionary work would be possible, and only the most idealistic could think that the socialist movement could then switch to such work by starting at that time to build an organisation capable of doing it. The whole history of the Nigerian socialist movement is a definitive rebuttal of that line of thinking.
It is therefore not simply a matter of abstract or theoretical rationality but of concrete and practical necessity that the socialist movement should apply itself and its resources first to the building of the revolutionary vanguard party rather than the mass party.
Is the Nigerian socialist movement in a state to build a revolutionary vanguard party?
The pressing, immediate organisational task of the Nigerian socialist movement therefore is to build a revolutionary vanguard party of the Leninist type. However, it is a pressing, immediate fact also that the movement is today not in a state to carry out this task, not without first undergoing a preparatory process of self-clarification and purification. A Leninist party demands in its members a consistent revolutionary consciousness founded on the transcendent interests of the proletariat, an unwavering and demonstrated commitment to socialist revolution based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, and the highest standards of selflessness and discipline in personal and social conduct. Few would deny that these qualities have always been very rare in the Nigerian socialist movement and are even rarer today. That is not to say that there are not socialists scattered across various organisations who possess these qualities, even in abundance. Yet, it is a sad fact of the history and practical reality of revolutionary organisation that a few extra-ordinary comrades do not a revolutionary vanguard make: they can serve as no more than the initial stem cells from which to develop such a party.
The present state of the Nigerian socialist movement features the following principal characteristics:
Ideological and programmatic degeneration: The movement is in a state of ideological degeneration, which has been masked and therefore gone generally unnoticed only because there has been little open discussion within the movement of the issues and tasks thrown up by the social conflict. We have itemised the principal elements of this degeneration under our fourth thesis and only need to emphasise that the issue is not what a socialist individual or organisation may believe privately but what they practice in their actual intervention in the social conflict. The Nigerian socialist movement from the early to the late 1980s offered a reasonably coherent and tenable socialist theory of the essence and dynamics of the neo-colonial formation, as well as a socialist programme of measures to solve its contradictions. With the ideological crisis of the movement and its organisational demise, however, the alternative analysis and programme offered by many groupings and individuals who have remained active in the social conflict and who still consider themselves socialist have become increasingly infused with and indistinguishable from social liberalism and bourgeois ethno-nationalism in their basic premises, logic, and conclusions. There is little doubt that with its ideological collapse in the early 1990s the Nigerian socialist movement has since ceased in the majority of its members to represent or embody the highest development of proletarian class consciousness in Nigeria. Its ideology is today little different from petty bourgeois radicalism and it is a tragic measure of the depth of its ideological degeneration that few of its members recognise this fact. In the self-delusion of introducing a radical perspective into the struggles for human rights and ethnic justice, many have actually abandoned the key elements of a Marxist position on these issues and adopted the perspectives of the liberal and radical wings of the petty bourgeoisie.
Quite in consistence with this, there exists no defined socialist programme to guide the movement, beyond a general aspiration to the abolition of neo-colonial capitalist relations and their replacement with socialist ones. Indeed, the programmatic vision of the movement has drifted – in most cases, imperceptibly – into a radical-democratism that is garbed in socialist-sounding phrases but that has actually become historically obsolete (see our critique of the liberal-democratic and radical-democratic movements under our second thesis). Outside this radical-democratism, most Nigerian socialists operate in a programmatic vacuum.
Organisational atrophy and disarray: The socialist movement has shrunk drastically from its size in the period before the violent incapacitation campaign waged against it by the Babangida regime in the 1986-1993 anti-SAP revolt. At the heart of the movement before and for most of that period were a number of core organisations with more or less extensive nationwide networks of base and intermediate structures (predominantly but not only in educational campuses). Associated with these core organisations was a variety of mostly campus-based mass organisations over which they had ideological and programmatic influence and whose leadership they mostly provided. The most important constituents of the mass element (as opposed to the core element) of the movement were the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). The core organisations had not only ideological and programmatic influence over the former but also direct leadership control for the period from 1980 to 1992; and they had strong influence until 1988 over the perspective, programme, and leadership of the latter.
As Babangida’s war against the movement progressed, however, the core lost control and influence over the mass element of the movement, some of which simply expired as in the case of many of the campus-based mass organisations while the NLC fell under the more or less direct control of the state and the NANS sank into schism and opportunism. Thus, the movement essentially shed its mass and shrank to just its core organisations. Many of these latter themselves withered under the repression or fragmented under the impact of the opportunism unleashed with the massive inflow of donor funds into the Nigerian civil society movement. There has therefore been a drastic drop in the number individuals who both subscribe to socialism and intervene in the social conflict in pursuit of socialist goals.
Similarly, only a few socialist organisations exist today, in the sense of relatively stable structured relationships amongst persons performing defined functions in the coordinated pursuit of common goals. Further, most individuals subscribing to socialism do not belong to any socialist organisation, while some others belong to what are no more than discussion groups or even just circles of socialist friends. There exists little or no coordination among the individuals, discussion groups, and the few existing socialist organisations in their interventions in the social conflict. These constituent elements of the atrophied socialist movement act mostly independently of each other.
Interventional incapacity: The socialist movement today has very little interventional capacity, in the sense of the ability to initiate processes in the social conflict or to influence the direction, pace, or outcomes of such process. This has been described adequately in our third thesis concerning the reformism of the current social conflict. We will only state here that the fact of the interventional incapacity of the movement is hidden only by the fact that socialists, liberals, and radicals are in most cases co-existing in one broad and more or less undifferentiated opposition movement at the moment,  even in the same organisations. This provides the basis of the illusion of a socialist movement that is stronger than it really is, the basis of a pernicious self-delusion among many socialists.
However, a structural crisis forces each class or group of a capitalist formation to more closely conceptualise its interests, to determine the implications of the crisis and of capitalist social relations for those interests, and to formulate a programme of action to advance those interests in light of those implications. This often brings to light the contradictions or affinities between the interests of different classes and groups, necessitating a separation or alliance between them in the social conflict generated or exacerbated by the crisis. The next structural crisis will therefore probably force a greater differentiation of the broad opposition movement, decomposing it into its basic elements as defined by the individual bodies of class interests that each of the three strands of the opposition represents. This will expose the interventional incapacity of the socialist movement.
* OSAZE LANRE NOSAZE is formerly Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO). This article, part of a larger work, was written in May 2013.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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