The Working Class, Politics & Party-Building

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We are living through a period of general crisis. Economic, social, political, ideological, and ecological crises merge into one all-consuming crisis of the system. Those responsible for the situation are a handful of rich and powerful people; the 1% of the population who control the economy, profiting from the exploitation of the poor, and our natural resources. They have been able to defend and sustain the exploitative system they represent primarily because they wield political power.  They also shape the dominant ideas in society, making their repulsive rule of profit over people appear natural.

The burden of this systemic crisis is borne by poor masses, whose lives have become marked with sorrow, tears, and blood. The only way we can change the situation is to fight to liberate ourselves, and build a better, just, and equitable society. The most organised section of the working masses, which is also centrally integrated into the exploitative capitalist system, is the working-class. It is thus best placed to provide leadership for the entire exploited and oppressed masses in the political struggle for our self-emancipation and system change.

The above general introductory perspective definitely puts the situation in Nigeria in summary perspective. But a closer look will show that it speaks to the worldwide situation. This is because the capitalist system which we are fighting is an international system which moulds every country in its vampirish image; “sucking the blood of the sufferers” everywhere. Thus, for working-class people anywhere to win total liberation, we must defeat capitalism globally. The working-class movement is an international movement. Our struggle in Nigeria is part of the broader struggle and solidarity of our class for a better world.

In the following sections of this article, we shall first look at why we need (to deepen our) political struggle. This will be identified in the specific nature of the crises we face today. Then we will look at what such political struggle entails and make suggestions on how we go about waging it.

An era of crises and revolts

From Lagos to Maiduguri and Sokoto to Port Harcourt, Nigeria is entangled in a series of crises. Suffering has become the lot of millions of people, in a country which is now home to the largest number of the poorest people in the whole wide world.

The national unemployment rate increased from 12.1% in 2016 to 27.1% by 2020. Those with work are little better off. Real wages have sharply declined, and tens of thousands of workers and pensioners are still owed backlogs of salaries. Precarious work has become the order of the day for millions of people in the formal sector, while the tens of millions of workers in the informal economy find it increasingly difficult to survive.

While working-class people continue to wallow in poverty, the rich continue to get richer. Nigeria has witnessed the fastest growth in the wealth of millionaires and billionaires on the African continent over the last five years. The country’s legislators remain amongst the highest paid in the world. Corruption remains rampant with a handful of persons stealing monies that could have been used to provide free and qualitative education, health, and housing for the poor masses.

The social crisis is about as terrible as the economic crisis. Insecurity has been on the rise, with many fearing to travel by land as they could be killed or kidnapped by bandits. But the poor cannot afford flight tickets. Robberies and wanton murders are not only on the highways. Criminal gangs of different sorts, such as the “1 million boys” and “badoo” gangs in Lagos have become threats to working-class communities.

The gradual worsening of conditions of living for the poor over the decades have led to a spiral in religiosity. Prosperity gospel has powered the spread of new generation Churches and provision of welfare for members has also contributed to the growth of many Islamic groups (which was how Boko Haram grew at an alarming rate and expanded its influence, before its war with the Nigerian state started in 2009).

In the wake of the war in the northwest (which contributed to the availability of arms and ammunition to a wide array of people), and as the worsening climate crisis makes open grazing more challenging in the savannas of the north, herders and farmers conflicts have greatly increased and assumed more deadly dimensions. This, within the context of growing criminality as pointed out earlier, have been seized upon to define the problem in “tribal” terms, furthering ethnic polarization and the rise of “tribal” champions. The forces of thugs, unemployed and such like they are mobilising to the cheering of people from the same ethnic group could very well be turned against workers in the coming period, just as a benign Boko Haram of the past now kills indiscriminately.

The All Progressives Congress (APC) rose to power in 2015 because of widespread anger and frustration of the masses with the incapacity of the Peoples Democratic Party to resolve the generalised crisis sweeping throughout the country. This anger was clearly demonstrated in 2012 as the January Uprising. But the working-class which led that historic revolt did not provide a political alternative and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

APC has shown itself to be no better than PDP. And the all-round crisis of capitalism, the system which both parties represent, has worsened, to the chagrin of the poor masses. The EndSARS rebellion of 2020 was yet another, and very graphically put, demonstration of mass anger against the system of oppression ranged against the immense majority of the population.

However, we cannot liberate ourselves with episodic revolts. Sustained political and ideological struggle that is needed for the education, mobilisation, and organisation of working-class people for transformative and emancipatory struggle requires a mass-based party with an alternative vision for (re-)building society.

The working-class and a party of a new type

Quite often people say Nigeria is not working. But this is not wholly correct. Nigeria and indeed the capitalist world as a whole works, on the basis of a competitive logic which pits us against each other. The problem is that this same logic leads to crises that the primary beneficiaries of the system might not envisage and cannot control.

A genuinely working people’s party must be one of struggle against the bosses’ and their parties, and as well against the logic of the bosses’ system. It must have an alternative vision of society based on solidarity, equity, and justice. It must be a party which fosters the class consciousness and independent (i.e., independent of the bosses’ influence) organisation of working-class people for the purpose of, and in furtherance of this struggle.

While workers’ parties could, and have been, formed outside the unions, trade unions are best placed to establish, or at least play key roles in the formation of working-class parties. As the primary defensive organisations of workers, they represent a structural base on which mass-based working-class people’s parties could be built.

There have been several workers parties formed outside the trade unions in Nigeria over the last seven decades. These include the United Working People’s Party (UWPP) of 1953 and the Socialist Workers, Farmers and Youth Party (SWP) of the early 1980s. But these had at best dozens or a few hundreds of members and had little impact on politics.

The workers parties that have had some extent of significance have been those which trade unions were pivotal to their formation, such as the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party (SWAFP) and Nigeria Labour Party (NLP) of the 1960s and the Socialist Working People’s Party (SWPP) of the 1980s. These were parties which were formed by left sections of the trade unions and not the trade union movement as a whole. But they were formed as central offensive instruments of the political and ideological class struggle of the working-class.

The nature and approach (of trade unions) to party-“building” has changed over the last three decades. There is one good element in these changes. The formation of these parties involved concerted efforts of the trade union movement. Thus, the two parties formed in this period (the short-lived Nigeria Labour Party in 1989 and the Labour Party formed in 2002), were able to draw hundreds of thousands of members into their ranks, unlike the earlier parties that could count their numbers only in the thousands.

These two projects were after the decisive influence of radical socialist politics in the movement had waned. Nor surprisingly, as the trade union movement itself had come to accommodate itself to a “social partner” role with the bosses, they did not start from the standpoint of class struggle. The trade unions saw them as electoral platforms, more or less like any other (i.e., the bosses’) party. Thus, the influence of socialist left groups and ideas were curtailed in them. If a workers’ party is not seen as a new type of party, with alternative politics to the mainstream, any future party-building project will equally be a futile effort at beating the bosses in their own game.

Building the needed workers’ party as an alternative to the bosses’ parties

What does a mass-based workers’ party as a new type of party mean? How does such a party serve as the arrowhead of working-class politics?

First, a genuinely workers’ party cannot be concerned only, or even primarily, with electoral contest to win government. Its fundamental concern must be to change the system and thus end the exploitation and oppression of working-class people.

So, it must be engaged in supporting and providing political leadership for all struggles of working-class people anywhere and everywhere. This should not simply be by issuing statements. It must be on the streets, organising mass protests. It must support the strikes and all other struggles of workers at local, state, and national levels.

It must stand with displaced people and organise fightback against demolitions. It must be the voice of poor farmers against land grabbing and the powers of corporations in agriculture. The workers’ party of a new type will be the leading body wielding unity of the masses against ethnic polarization at a moment such as this. It must draw in the youth, including students demanding free and qualitative education for all. In short, it must be the activist “tribune of the oppressed”.

To be able to do this, and do it successfully, the party must be a continuation – the arrowhead – of the broad body of working-class politics. This broad body includes the trade unions and also the radical, pro-labour civil society organisations, and other radical and revolutionary parties.

The workers’ party of a new type will flourish in an environment where the Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) is strengthened. This would entail an expansion of LASCO to include the Federation of Informal Workers’ Organisations, along with NLC and TUC as trade union bodies and also the inclusion of other civil society coalitions such as the Coalition for Revolution (CORE) and the Alliance for Surviving COVID-19 and Beyond (ASCAB) along with the Joint Action Front (JAF) as civil society components of LASCO.

The party should also forge close collaboration with existing radical and revolutionary parties, particularly where these have some significant levels of followership, such as the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), African Action Congress (AAC) and National Conscience Party (NCP), as well as socialist left groups. Indeed, the formation process of the party should include efforts to harness these parties into one body.

If or not all or some of these parties coalesce into the emergence of a workers’ party of a new type, such party must be one which fully upholds internal democracy. The internal life of the party must allow the flourishing of tendencies and comradely debate to reach decisions, while organisational discipline of unity in action, based on resolutions democratically reached, is maintained.

Education, mobilisation, and organisation of working-class people must be woven into the activities of the party, engaging with its broader environment of civil society and the trade unions. This requires dynamic routine. The branches of the party must be centres of lively growth and development of working-class cadres.

Meetings, which should be regularly held, must include political education sessions on working-class history and theory as well as sessions for discussions on current national and local situations of significance to working-class people and their struggles. They should also include the planning of intervention in any local problem of concern to the people, on a regular basis.

The party needs to have a party school for in-depth class education, training, and research. The NLC national and state-level schools should be integrated into this. The party’s research unit should carry out regular research, including action-research that involves members and other workers, on all matters of concern to the working masses and regularly issue briefs to inform and educate members and the class. The July 2010 NLC National Executive Council resolution that no one can contest for NLC state council elections without being a card-carrying member of the party of labour must also be put into effect – at last.

The party must creatively utilise all forms of traditional and new/social media. The earlier workers’ parties had newspapers. SWAFP published Advance every two weeks for several years and SWPP published the New Horizon as a monthly newspaper. The need for a workers’ party’s newspaper cannot be overemphasized. And such a newspaper must not simply be a source of information. It must be a tool for organising.

Members of the party must be trained to use the paper for engagement in debates and recruitment in their workplaces and communities. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp etc must be well utilised. These should not be run on an amateurish basis with volunteers. While volunteers could play roles in the party’s media strategy, it should be run by politically minded (in a working-class sense) professionals.

Internationalism must be a cornerstone of the party. The party should forge relations with radical and revolutionary workers’ parties across the world and cultivate a grasp of the international dynamics of the capitalist system and working-class people’s resistance in its members. Doing this would entail full support for the struggles of workers, youths, women, and all oppressed peoples across the world.

The climate crisis which capitalist production has generated, and which puts the planet in peril, should be a matter of concern for the party. It must take up a leading role in the global movement for “system change, not climate change”. Demands must be actively placed on the Nigerian state to act against practices such as gas flaring which contribute to global heating.

The party must stand against every ideology that promotes division within the ranks of working people. It should be unconditionally anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-ethnicist. Full, and not just some mere tokenist involvement of women in all decision-making structures and processes of the party must be promoted. The party must also speak out against and mobilise actions to fight all forms of oppression of women and sexual minorities.

The youth are the future, and the future starts now. The party must mobilise students into its ranks as active members and not just as members of youth wings or youth committees. Branches must be set up on campuses as well as clubs (these could be as literary and debating or history clubs) in post-primary schools.

Conclusion

Politics is about contestation for power. For the different bosses’ parties, they each simply want governmental power, within the same state, because this state i.e., the capitalist state, defends their collective interest against working-class people.  Thus, for the working-class, our politics must be one which stands for changing the system and establishing a new form of state i.e., workers’ power to defend our self-emancipation, which the bosses’ will resist, until there is no basis again for exploitation and oppression.

Trade unionism is the form of working-class struggle with which we fight for social-economic reforms within the existing capitalist system e.g., for improved wages and working conditions. But for as long as our struggle remains at the level of trade unionism, we will always be playing catch-up with the antics of the bosses. They will always try to take back whatever we win as concessions with the left hand, with their right hand.

We thus need to have a party of labour. And this can have meaning only when it is a party of a new type, with a new vision and political methods rooted in mass action with the aim of changing the system. It would have to contest elections but cannot change the system simply via the ballot box. Electoral victory that is not based on a system change politics could put us in government but not in power. We have seen how social-democratic parties in Europe and a few other places in the world have ended up pushing some of the most anti-workers neoliberal policies in those countries.

The basis of a mass-based workers’ party of the type we need must be a socialist programme. This much was appreciated, in the Labour and Politics policy of the NLC adopted at the 8th NLC National Delegates Conference in February 2003. While the steps taken to “build” the Labour Party were in total disregard of this Congress resolution, it remains extant as a policy position of the NLC.

This is the time for this policy to be duly implemented and a socialist working people’s party established to lead working-class people’s struggle for total liberation and the building of a better society.

As Frantz Fanon says, “every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” The mission for this generation is that of revolutionary struggle to win the total liberation of working-class people. To fulfil this mission, we need to build a revolutionary party. The trade union movement is best placed to build a mass-based workers’ party.

Three questions however remain in the womb of unfolding time. First, will the trade union bureaucracy seize the bull by the horns and take up this historical responsibility? Second, if organised labour’s leadership does take up the mantle to organise a mass-based workers’ party, could this be built as a revolutionary party? If the bureaucracy fails in these two tasks, can existing or new revolutionary parties become working-class people as well as youth parties by deepening their roots in the rank-and-file of the working people?

As Bob Dylan sang, “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”

by Baba AYE

Note: An earlier version of this article was published as “The Working-Class and Politics in the Current Period”, in the February edition of the NLC State of the Struggle magazine.

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