The philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Just as the defeat of the movement of the 1950s was not inevitable, so the victory of our movement today will not be inevitable either. It will depend mainly on the ability of the active, advanced layer of the working class, now building organisation among the youth, in the communities, and above all in the democratic trade unions, to unite and guide the struggle by a means of a scientific understanding.
The 1950s was a period rich in lessons for today – lessons that can be found in every phase and facet of it: in the tremendous energy and force of the mass movement; in the heroism and self-sacrifice of the many thousands who rose to confront the bosses and the state; in the hard-fought advances of the movement as well as in its eventual crippling and defeat.
These lessons, we believe, have a common connecting thread. They reveal that the struggle for national liberation and democracy involves, if it is to triumph, a struggle to overthrow the capitalist system itself.
They reveal that every real step forward in this struggle depends on the mobilisation and organisation of the working class. They show that this class, and no other, has the potential force to drive the ruling class into retreat, to weaken and divide the ranks of its supporters, to unite all the black oppressed and draw to their side exploited sections of whites, and ultimately to overwhelm the state.
The central lesson of the 1950s is surely this: that our revolutionary movement, struggling for national liberation and democracy, must be firmly and deliberately built as a class-conscious movement of the working class for socialism.
Every significant defeat of the 1950s, every wrong step with serious consequences for the people, resulted from the failure of the leadership of the movement at that time to grasp this reality and use it as the basis for perspectives, strategy and tactics.
The unwillingness to mobilise and concentrate the full power of the mass movement in nationwide action; the failure to build systematically the working-class organisations necessary to sustain it and defend it against repression; the repeated confusion and demoralisation in the movement, and its eventual splitting between rival organisations and leaderships; the disarming of the working class by the futile turn to an “armed struggle” by guerrillas – all these had a common root.
They stemmed from the mistaken belief of a middle class leadership – reinforced in this by the “Communist” Party – that democratic concessions could be won through the support of the liberal or “progressive” capitalists.
It was upon these hopes, and not upon the power of the working class, that the leadership in the final analysis relied.
Hence it sought again and again, in tireless futility, to accommodate the demands and aspirations of the working class within limits acceptable to the capitalists – and it ended up, in consequence, paralysing its own real forces, frustrating its own democratic aims, and going down to defeat with the workers.
Only if there had existed in the 1950s a strong, conscious Marxist tendency within the ranks of the Congress movement, based especially among the organised workers in the trade unions, could that tragic course of events have been averted. Such a tendency did not exist. Today, however, at least the first beginning has been made to try to fill that need.
The defeat of the movement was suffered at a tremendous cost to the working class. Yet that cost will not have been wasted if the working-class movement in the 1980s can draw to the full the lessons from it, and so prepare the way to victory.