What do Leninists mean by being tribunes of the people?
[I have been looking through some old Socialist Reviews (or as they were called then, Socialist Worker Reviews) from the 1980s recently, and came across the following great little piece by Andy Zebrowski entitled 'What do we mean by the tribune of the people?' from Socialist Worker Review, no. 83, January 1986, which hopefully both the editors of Socialist Review and Andy Zebrowski himself will be happy with me reproducing on Histomat below].
What do we mean by the tribune of the people?
The phrase 'tribune of the people' seems ot be an odd one for socialists to use. Yet it is a term which they may hear bandied about in meetings, using when the speaker is calling for socialists to take up the causes of oppressed groups, or to raise general revolutionary politics to widen a particular struggle.
We take the modern idea of the tribune from the Russian revolutionary, Lenin. In What is to be Done?, written in 1903, he says that the ideal of the revolutionary should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people.
Lenin used the phrase to attack the Economists - people who wanted to concentrate narrowly and exclusively on the industrial struggle. He argued that under the Tsarist autocracy at the time, people from all classes would come into conflict with the state. Revolutionaries had to show the links between these struggles and the fight to overthrow the regime. They also had to involve themselves in those struggles.
What point was Lenin trying to make when he argued for revolutionaries to be 'tribunes' in this way?
Firstly, he wanted to make clear that revolutionary socialists are opposed to all oppression, and that they should try to take a lead in fighting against it.
Secondly, he wanted to stress that a revolutionary has to rise above the particular interests of a section of the working class or oppressed in order to raise general political answers to the problems of the exploited and oppressed.
Here Lenin was touching on issues which have often causes much difficulty to revolutionaries in the present day. Often it is hard enough to convince people around us that the working class is the revolutionary class in society. All too often this central premise of Marx's thought can turn into a belief that the fight against oppression is not relevant to workers' struggles, or to a belief that any struggle by workers must be a good thing.
Yet both arguments are mistaken and can lead on the one hand to abstaining from struggle, on the other to a passive tailing of workers by revolutionaries, even when the actions of those workers are far from revolutionary.
The working class is the only class which has the power and organisation to achieve socialism. Yet it is also obvious that the working class is not a united class most of the time.
There are many quite major divisions inside the working class - on grounds of race, of sex, divisions between workers of different religions, divisions on the ground of skill. We shouldn't be surprised that these divisions give rise to oppressed groups - women, racial minorities, people from certain nations - who suffer real grievances, and who sometimes organise against those grievances.
The existence of different sorts of oppression stems from the existence of class society itself. In capitalist society the necessities of life and a surplus are produced under oppressive conditions. People do not choose to produce, they are forced of necessity to do so. They are alienated from the products of their labour. This engenders a whole system of oppressions which stem from the class contradiction of society.
The final ending of that oppression will come with the ending of class society. But that doesn't mean that all the exploited or oppressed move towards a recognition of this at the same time. Nor is it sufficient to rely on a far-off revolutionary process to solve the problems of the oppressed. To do so only leads to a crude mechanical Marxism which bypasses the need to fight oppression.
What Lenin was arguing was that the revolutionary party has to recognise that struggles may arise among groups who are very far from the working class. It is the duty of socialists to support those struggles against the capitalist system and to try and lead them towards the party itself, and towards understanding the central revolutionary role of the working class.
'The urban and industrial proletariat will inevitably be the nucleus of our Social-Democratic Labour Party, but we must attract to it, enlighten, and organise all who labour and are exploited, as stated in our programme—all without exception: handicraftsmen, paupers, beggars, servants, tramps, prostitutes—of course, subject to the necessary and obligatory condition that they join the Social-Democratic movement and not that the Social-Democratic movement join them, that they adopt the standpoint of the proletariat, and not that the proletariat adopt theirs.'
This last phrase is the key. A revolutionary party welcomes and wants to win all those fighting their oppression - whether national, racial or sexual. But the party has to build on the understanding that organisation of the oppressed is not the central road to revolution.
There is a limit to the struggle against oppression unless it is tied to the struggles of the working class. Oppressed groups can rail against the system - they cannot destroy it or build a new socialist society. The working class is the only class in society which both has the power to end capitalism and the interests as a class in ending all oppression.
The point of Lenin praising the tribune of the people was not only to locate all forms of oppression within the capitalist system. It also guarded against two dangers. One was to dismiss all struggles that are not rooted in the workplace as irrelevant. The other was to believe that all struggles by groups of workers should win the automatic support of socialists.
This is not necessarily the case. There are strikes of a reactionary nature - against blacks or against women having the right to work - of which socialists are very critical.
They have to rise above what a particular group of workers hold to be in their interests. For in the long term such struggles not only weaken the position of those under attack but also the position of those under attack but also the position of those workers making the attacks. Every time workers make a scapegoat out of another section of the working class, every time the colour of skin or religious beliefs or gender are held up as the fundamental dividing line in society, the bosses gain strength to control the working class as a whole.
The idea of the revolutionary party as a tribune of the people should not, however, be confused with the notion of a coalition of oppressed groups. Jesse Jackson's 'rainbow coalition' in the United States sought to enlist the support of organisations who proclaimed themselves as the representatives of oppressed blacks, women or hispanics. The Communist Party in this country argues that what is needed is unity between the different autonomous movements - women, blacks and gays.
Our idea is different. It is not to unite different organisations but to intervene directly in any clash by groups against the authorities or their oppressors.
The idea of the revolutionary minority being tribunes of the people is rooted in the fact that workers' power is the only way to end oppression.
Our job today is to be the best, clearest-headed fighters against oppression and at the same time to explain the revolutionary road to ending it.