Why must the working class — those who live by the sale of their labour power — organise as a political party to achieve socialism? The answer to this question is to be found in an examination of the nature and role of the modern State.
At present the capitalist class control society through their possession of political power, through their control of the machinery of government. They did not construct this machine for this purpose, as the anarchist claims; the machinery of government evolved along with the evolution of society as a whole. It is one of the facts of social life that the government machine is the centre of social control. The working class must base its policy on a recognition of this. If the working class is to become the master of society — which it must do in order to change it — then it too must recognise itself as a class, and organise itself politically. This political party must be socialist, expressing workers' recognition that their emancipation can only be achieved by the expropriation of the capitalist class and the establishment of socialism.
Given the need for a socialist political party, on what lines should it be organised? A movement which aims at the establishment of a social democracy in which human instead of commercial values flourish cannot employ means which conflict with this end. It must to a certain extent reflect the new society it aims to create. This means that it must be organised on democratic lines. Its membership. even when it is only a small group, must have complete control over policy; all its officials must be responsible to the membership; there must be complete freedom of discussion within the party; there must be no division into leaders and led; there must be no secret meetings from which any section of the membership is excluded. But not only must the party be democratic, it must also be open in its methods.
The socialist political party will not appear ready-made: like other social phenomena, it will grow out of social conditions. This raises the whole question of the role of a socialist party in the class struggle. At present there are two obstacles which stand in the way of achieving socialism: the political ignorance of the working class and the control of the machinery of government by the capitalist class. To overcome these obstacles socialist understanding must come first.
This does not mean that the relation between the party and the working class is to be that of teacher and pupil. Socialist understanding is not something that can be constructed out of nowhere; it must grow out of social conditions. Such understanding — or class consciousness — will not arise purely as a result of the propaganda of the socialist party. Ideas only grip the masses when they are relevant to social conditions. There are any number of cranks around with utopian schemes for social reconstruction. What distinguishes socialists from them is that socialism is the material interest of the working class. Socialists have social evolution on their side. The cranks have not.
Education is not just a question of learning from books and pamphlets; that is just one aspect of learning from experience. The class experiences of the working class under capitalism will teach it that socialism is the answer to its problems. The party can help this development of socialist understanding by storing up and propagating the past experiences of the working class so that these are easily accessible. The principles of the socialist party will be based on these experiences and will serve as a guide to social issues. To carry out this task its members must necessarily have a fairly high degree of political knowledge, know their opponents' case and be able to expose the flaws in their arguments. In its educational phase, precisely because it is such a phase, a higher degree of political understanding must be required of the members of the party than the working class need have to establish socialism. As socialist understanding spreads the number and importance of its opponents, and hence also of the need of a knowledge of their arguments, may well decline.
Once socialist understanding grows to any appreciable extent, political conditions will completely change. The comparative trivialities of present day politics will be cast aside and the issue will be capitalism or socialism. With the changed conditions will come a change in the role of the party. It will become the political organisation of the working class which they can use to capture political power.