Supplement: Left Unity’s contradictory aspirations
A wide-ranging strategic debate has erupted on the left, Mike Macnair conducts a critical examination
Wide ranging strategic debate
(Supplement also available to download as a PDF here)
Should the left be aiming to move Labour slightly left (or at least keep it from moving further right), within the limits of what is agreeable to full-time trade union national officials?
Or should we seek to build a broad left party outside Labour, including both ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries’ - whatever these categories mean in 21st century Britain - but with a ‘revolutionary Marxist’ pole - again, whatever that means - within it?
Or do we really need to build an organisationally independent ‘revolutionary party’, in which a strong, centralised leadership directs the cadres from this strike, to that campaign, to the other strike, keeping them engaged in constant street or strike activism and hence in touch with the ‘mass movement’?
Or is there another way?
The combination of the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, Owen Jones’s January 20 2013 article in The Independent calling for a “broad network that unites progressive opponents of the coalition”, and Ken Loach’s February 28 2013 Question time appeal for a left alternative to Labour, connected with the formation of Left Unity, has led to a substantial discussion on which way the left should go: in effect, a discussion of left strategy.
Of course, the events just referred to are merely triggers. On the one hand, the debate is one which has been running among the organised left in Britain (here including the Labour left) for 40 years or more. On the other, this old debate is given added edge at present. The past period has seen deepening social polarisation between rich and poor; 2008-09 saw the most spectacular crisis of capitalism since 1929, and stagnation/‘depression’ conditions have dragged on since then - albeit mitigated by large-scale money-printing. Despite all this, the principal political beneficiary has been the various forms of the nostalgia-politics right (nationalist and/ or religious) rather than the left. Hence, the question of what sort of left strategy has a chance of getting us out of this hole becomes more urgent ...
“Michael Ford” - a pseudonym for a “senior figure in the labour and trade union movement” - has written a critique of the Left Unity project in a two-part article, ‘Left Unity’s modest flutter’, available on LU’s website.1 The author is pretty clearly (from the content of the article) an ‘official communist’, and widely rumoured to be a Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain supporter who holds an appointed position in a trade union headquarters.
The article in effect lays out the working orientation of the Morning Star/CPB, which is held much more widely among Labour and trade union left officials than the formal size of the CPB would make it appear. The project is essentially of moving Labour slightly to the left, through alliance with ‘official lefts’ in the unions and the parliamentary Labour Party. At the same time, the Ford article also displays, in passing comments, that lurking within this is a ‘party concept’ of the sect type shared by the SWP.
Ford’s article has attracted two replies from supporters of the ‘Euro-Trotskyist’ Fourth International, of distinctly different characters. Murray Smith’s ‘Will the real European left stand up?’ criticises Ford’s account of European left parties - among other things for Ford’s claim that these are simply “reformist”.2 Phil Hearse’s ‘Mission impossible? Fight to reconquer Labour or build a broad left party?’ is a more general critique of Ford on the basis of a seriously weak analysis of the political situation.3 Both Hearse and (less clearly) Smith defend the idea of building a ‘broad left’ party ‘not demarcated between reform and revolution’; from Hearse’s submission to the Socialist Resistance conference we can see that for him (and Socialist Resistance) at least there is also to be a ‘revolutionary Marxist’ sect nucleus operating within the ‘broad party’.4
Both the Ford article and the Smith and Hearse critiques of it lay heavy emphasis on analyses of the immediate political situation. Especially in light of all the talk of ‘new’ politics on the part of some of these comrades, the naive reader would find nothing in them to enable him or her to guess that the idea of limiting political action to what is acceptable to the official lefts has been the policy of the Morning Star since the times of the old ‘official’ Communist Party; or that the project of building ‘broad parties’ containing a ‘revolutionary Marxist’ nucleus has been the policy of the Fourth International since the 1980s;5 or that there have been real experiences with trying these two approaches (not just in Britain), on the basis of which it might be appropriate to modify or reconsider the approaches.
Meanwhile, Alex Callinicos of the SWP found in Owen Jones’s Independent article - and in Richard Seymour’s support for Syriza - an opportunity to attempt to shift the discussion of the SWP crisis away from the grotesqueries of the SWP’s micro-Stalinoid bureaucratic functioning, and onto the question of ‘reform or revolution’. This was the burden of his February 2013 Socialist Review article, ‘Is Leninism finished?’6 This approach has been partially challenged by Mike Gonzalez, Ian Birchall, and other SWP oppositionists,7 but persists in Callinicos’s ‘What sort of party do we need?’ (SR July) and in Paul Blackledge’s ‘Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today’ in International Socialism No139 (July).8
The argument is that what is needed is a revolution (‘One solution: revolution!’), based on mass strikes and street actions, leading to the formation of workers’ councils as an alternative centre of authority. This concept of ‘revolution’ is said, in turn, to require an organisationally independent ‘revolutionary party’ which operates in accordance with ‘Leninism’ or ‘democratic centralism’, meaning by this, the SWP’s organisational practice. Again, this approach is no novelty: SWP leaders have been arguing broadly this line since the 1970s.
Do the arguments of Michael Ford, Murray Smith, Phil Hearse and Alan Thornett, Alex Callinicos and Paul Blackledge give us reasons to suppose that one or another of these three long-standing strategic approaches is the right approach for the left in the current conditions? And if not, is there an alternative? What I hope to do is to draw out some of the fundamental issues through critique of their arguments.
‘Left Unity’s modest flutter’ argues that the Left Unity project is misconceived, for, broadly, three reasons. The first is that the idea of “political space” to the left of Labour is false. The second is that the idea of imitating the left parties of continental Europe is illusory: they are politically weaker than they appear to British eyes, and in addition reflect a history profoundly different from that of the British labour movement. The third is that it is false to imagine that the economic crisis and the Con-Dems’ austerity project will tend to lead to mass radicalisation.
Ford’s positive alternative begins with a critique of Left Unity’s draft statement and of the left more generally. He argues that the statement is insufficiently clear on war and imperialism. It is non- or anti-Leninist - though, he says, “the experience of Leninism is the story of the world’s first successful socialist revolution”. He argues that it fails to take Marxism seriously enough.
The existing left-of-Labour left is in his view an agglomeration of groups, characterised by obsessive identification with the past, but which also attempt to dissociate themselves from the past (this combination is ‘negative spin’ for the preponderance of Trotskyism among them): “Nostalgia for 1945 ... is no basis for a 21st century political intervention”. The left is isolated from the working class. Its organisations “tend to be heavily male-dominated and have only barely absorbed the insights of feminism”. And “They can be uncomfortable in working across cultural differences in an increasingly diverse working class.”
What is needed is the “union of socialism with the mass movement” (an idea communism inherited from the Second International, in the form of the union of socialism with the working class movement, and one we can pretty much all agree on as a general principle). This requires “serious campaigning and propaganda within the working class, first of all for an alternative to capitalism, and an explanation of the means of struggle needed to achieve that objective”. What does comrade Ford mean by this?
He recognises that “the labour movement in Britain, and to varying degrees in other countries, has been reduced over the last generation to the point where it scarcely articulates an independent political project”. The class, he says, has changed: through feminisation; through the decline of manual work and factories; through globalisation and migration. So far, so Hobsbawm’s Forward march of labour halted (1978). The problem is “reconstituting the labour movement”.
At this point we reach a fairly standard left wish-list: strengthening trade unions; reconnecting unions with “the wider working class community”; working out policies which prioritise self-organisation; fighting and winning strikes; unity across ethnicities; reaching out to youth; reasserting “socialism as the only real solution”. This list is so wide-ranging, and so standard, as to be no more than leftwing motherhood and apple pie - though conspicuously missing are both cooperatives and mutuals, and political democracy as a goal either at work or in the workers’ movement.
How is the list ‘operativised’ in real choices? Ford’s answer is that “the labour movement ... has to use its immense potential capacities to lead struggles which point towards an alternative society across the board - that is, anti-war/anti-imperialist struggles and democratic struggles for social equality”. Thus the two examples of the left “making a big impact on society” he gives are the Stop the War Coalition, and Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty in London. The groups which have played a positive role here are the Morning Star’s CPB, Counterfire and Socialist Action: “Greater unity among such forces would really be a ‘left unity’ worth having.”
This framework brings us back to the question of the Labour Party. Ford insists that the question is whether this party can be “turned into an instrument of deeper social advance - not a revolutionary party, but one which can contribute towards opening up the way to socialism”. The answer he gives is, “who can say for sure?” Ed Miliband is “the best of the possible leaders on offer” and a 2015 Labour government would be an “arena of struggle”. The unions are “far deeper-rooted in society, and the working class in particular, than the socialist left, and they alone have the heft to rebuild the labour movement as a plausible alternative to capitalist rule”. His final slogan, then, is: “Engage with the movement as it is in order to make it something better!”
A good deal of Ford’s analysis of present political dynamics is not, in itself, unsound. The problem is the spin: the rhetoric which makes the analysis appear to lead to conclusions which do not logically follow.
The first question is that of “political space”. Ford is entirely correct to say that there is not an automatically existing left-right spectrum, which would mean that rightwards movement by the main Labour, or socialist, party would automatically open up “political space” further to its left. We have to ask why Labour and similar parties have moved right - and, for that matter, why Miliband and co have held as hard as possible to the rightward-moving ‘centre ground’, even if they have made a few left or populist gestures? The answer, of course, is that they think that this is more likely to win the next election than any veering to the left. The same is true of similar politicians overseas.
There is no need for this proposition to imply either good faith or bad faith on their part. Miliband and co are, of course, professional careerists interested mainly in obtaining public office. But the trade union leaders continue to back these careerists, in spite of grumbles, not because they have been paid off - they have not - but because they prefer in the interests of union members to have a Labour government rather than a Tory one, and they think the only way to get one is for the party to hold to the ‘centre ground’ - a ‘centre ground’ that has moved and is moving rightwards.
For the moment we need not ask why this is the case: we will have to come back to this question later. It is enough at this point to say that Ford is correct to say that Labour moving right does not automatically create political space to the left of Labour.
It does not follow, however, that there is no political space to the left of Labour; or that the question of what occupies the existing political space to the left of Labour does not affect what happens in the ‘centre ground’. In the first place, it is clear that there is some limited electoral space for parties which appear to be to the left of Labour: from George Galloway’s by-election successes in Bethnal Green and more recently in Bradford, and Caroline Lucas’s 2010 win for the Green Party in Brighton; and from the successes of the Scottish National Party and, before Welsh Labour took the opportunity of devolution to take political distance from Blair and Brown, of Plaid Cymru (this is not to imply that the Greens or the nationalists are actually to the left of Labour.) The political significance of this electoral space is limited, but it is not zero. Ford recognises this when he argues that the space to the left of Labour is already occupied.
Secondly, electoral space - inevitably limited under Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system - is not the same as political space. I do not mean by saying this to promote the illusions of the ‘anti-parliamentary’ left that electoral politics can be bypassed by forms of ‘direct action’ politics. But minority parties with very limited electoral success can have a considerably more significant political impact - on the ‘centre ground’, as well as on their own immediate ‘territory’. The Greens and the UK Independence Party provide recent obvious examples. Going further back, the indirect political impact of the ‘official’ Communist Party in the 1950s-70s was important; it was largely turned by the Marxism Today tendency in the late 1970s-80s into a vehicle for what became Blairism, but in its time was very substantial, and still echoes (mostly in the form of persistent illusions) in today’s left.
Ford’s spin is to make it appear to follow, from the correct judgment that Labour moving right does not automatically create political space to Labour’s left, that it does not matter what happens outside centre-ground politics, and hence that the only real available political choices are those that impact immediately on this centre ground: back Ed Miliband over David; Stop the War; Livingstone’s mayoralty.
The second question is that of the European left parties. Ford’s objections to using these as a model are, firstly, that they are reformist or, at best ‘centrist’ on the model of the 1920s ‘Two and a Half’ International. The most advanced case is Syriza in Greece, but if Syriza wins a majority it will be faced with “the essential contradiction in its politics - opposition to austerity, while supporting Greece’s continued membership of the EU and the single currency”.
Secondly, in Ford’s view “the Euro-left is hardly decisive outside Greece” and “polls less in general than when it was explicitly communist”. Thirdly, continental Europe has had a profoundly different historical experience to Britain - mass communist parties, fascism or Nazi occupation, and so on. He does not mention a critical difference - that the British FPTP electoral system tends to produce a two-party system of the centre, excluding representation of the left and right, while the partial proportionality of European electoral systems is more hospitable to left as well as right alternatives. (This omission may derive from the Morning Star’s - and the Labour left’s - British constitutional patriotism, which leads it to give de facto support to FPTP.)
Again it should be obvious that there are real truths here. But again the spin is the central problem. In the first place, it is peculiar to warn about the ‘reformist’ or ‘centrist’ character of the Euro-left parties, and then say it was right in Britain to “work for the election of the best of the possible leaders on offer, Ed Miliband”. It is also striking that Ford’s litmus test for reform versus revolution in Greece is ... opposition to EU membership: ie, illusions in nationalist autarky.
Secondly, the fact that the election results of the European left outside Greece are “hardly decisive” does not logically lead to the conclusion that the British combination of Labour clinging to the rightward-moving ‘centre ground’ plus splintered grouplets is a preferable option.
Thirdly, it is obviously true that British history is very substantially distinct from that of the main continental countries. But this does not, in historical terms, imply immunity from political influence across the Channel. The founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the 1860s-70s were influenced, via Marx and Engels and their co-thinkers, by British Chartism. The influence was felt in the other direction in the 1890s with the emergence of the Independent Labour Party and growth of the Social Democratic Federation, their ability to win local elections and the growth of labour representation advocacy in the trade unions. These played a substantial role in the beginnings of the Labour Party. The Communist Party of Great Britain was created in imitation of the Russian Communist Party - an influence from a far more profoundly different history than the differences between Britain and western continental Europe. With all its weaknesses, the ‘official’ CPGB was quite clearly more effective than the regime of competing small left groups which preceded it. So the different history does not logically require that the British left cannot usefully borrow continental political models.
On Ford’s third basic point - the politics of the 2008-09 crisis and its aftermath - the same applies. His objection to the idea that crisis and austerity will naturally lead to radicalisation is entirely correct. His criticism of Left Unity’s ‘austerity focus’ is equally correct. What is wrong is the conclusion he draws: that Left Unity risks being “almost (well intentioned) sabotage through division” or “the route to undermining the developing movement” (meaning by this the People’s Assembly). The spin works here by the implicit assumption that unity in action is only possible by suppressing disagreements: to raise disagreements (as, for example, by standing candidates against Labour) will therefore sabotage or undermine the united action.
But this method is in reality the old Stalinist commitment to the party monolith, here transposed onto the ‘broad front’ monolith. It has been repeatedly tested to destruction - most spectacularly and tragically in the USSR. On the one hand, the bureaucratic control needed to maintain the monolith sterilises creativity at the base, and hence leads to the condition of the hollowed-out labour movement of today (in the USSR and similar regimes, where the apparatus monolith held state power, the result was degradation of economic functioning, mass demoralisation, epidemic alcoholism and so on).
On the other hand, by excluding sharp criticism from the left of “the best of the possible leaders on offer” whether this is to be Ed Miliband or Neil Kinnock ... or Mikhail Gorbachev, it invites the leaders to succumb to the pressure on them from the rightwing media, etc (or, in the context of the old Soviet bloc, from global capitalism) to ‘triangulate’ to their right.
Comrade Ford’s political commitments here, in other words, are very near the core of the reasons for the fall of the Soviet bloc and for the (related) decay of the workers’ movement.
Within the monolithic broad front is to be a monolithic ‘revolutionary party’. This is in one sense much less explicit in Ford than in the approaches of Socialist Resistance and the SWP: Ford does not directly assert the need for a revolutionary party. But he criticises the “Euro-left” parties for not being ‘revolutionary’. He comments on Syriza that “Some will be enthused at the prospect of British Eurocommunists, Trotskyists and Maoists joining together in a similar common electoral front. Others would rather spend a week at the dentists.” In other words, he wants a more homogenous unity than the Euro-left.
Unity of whom? “In different ways, and with their common and different limitations, the Communist Party, Counterfire, Socialist Action and, of course, individuals in other groups can be found playing that sort of role - building the movement, seeking to shape it politically, setting new challenges for the organisations of the class and then working to meet them. Greater unity among such forces would really be a ‘left unity’ worth having.”
In another sense it is more explicit. Callinicos and his co-thinkers have gradually become Stalinists without admitting to themselves that they have. Hearse, Thornett and their co-thinkers are part-way along a slightly different road to bureaucratic control of workers’ organisations: that of Eurocommunism, identity politics and the ‘broad democratic alliance’.
But Ford is close to being an open Stalinist. He tells us that:
The experience of Leninism is the story of the world’s first successful socialist revolution, of working class state power, of the construction, defence and ultimate disintegration of world socialism in the 20th century, of parties which led masses in the struggle against capitalism, fascism and imperialism, and of millions who died on the battlefields and in the dungeons of the bourgeoisie as partisans of a world movement for a communist future, all with its historic achievements and imposing crimes and errors.
There can be no doubt that this is a celebratory reference to the history of the ‘socialist camp’ which died in 1991. I do not mean by this to deny the genuine heroism and sacrifices involved: but it is now perfectly clear that the ‘Soviet model’ was a blind alley, and the heroism and sacrifices were in that sense like the heroism and sacrifices of German soldiers in 1914-18: ending in defeat.
Hearse’s critique of Ford is characterised mainly by its political unrealism. First, in response to Ford’s argument that the political space to the left of Labour is already occupied, Hearse argues that George Galloway’s Respect and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party are not serious alternatives because they are one-man-bands; that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is merely an electoral bloc, and likely to be followed by a return of No2EU; and that the Greens are not a party of the left.
These arguments spectacularly miss Ford’s point. When Ford discusses political space to the left of Labour, he means electoral space. And to the mass electorate, the fact that the SLP is Scargill’s one-man-band, or Respect George Galloway’s, or that Tusc is a mere electoral coalition, are almost invisible. What confronts the electorate is that there are multiple electoral contenders to the left of Labour, none of which is strong enough to outweigh the others; and Left Unity will merely be another such group, not something which launches with sufficient forces and backing to break beyond far-left competition. (In the same way, the withdrawal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales from the Socialist Alliance in 2002 was enough to relegate the SA to the ranks of ‘one of the groups’.)
Second comes ‘reclaiming Labour’. Hearse says that “history is often unkind to political perspectives, but [Ford’s] approach suffered chronic damage within a few weeks”: when Miliband chose the day of the People’s Assembly to give an ‘austerity unavoidable’ speech, and in the row over Falkirk. A few months later, and politics looks very different again, with a deal of some sort stitched up over Falkirk, and Labour Party conference showing some token gestures to the left by the leadership: Hearse’s approach suffered as much damage in September as Ford’s did in July.
Hearse’s conclusion on the basis of the state of politics as of July 11 is: “From the point of view of representing the working class and promoting progressive advance, Labour is a political corpse.” We need to separate “representing the working class” from “promoting progressive advance” - in the first place because the latter is a completely empty phrase. From the point of view of the class analysis of British electoral politics, it is quite clear that Labour continues to represent the working class: urban working class constituencies vote Labour, the rural classes do not, and the urban and suburban middle classes are to a considerable extent ‘floating voters’. What the working class hopes to get from voting Labour is clearly no longer (as perhaps it was in 1944-45) movement towards socialism. It is rather a blunting of the edge of the ongoing attacks of capital.
Hearse insists that his judgment is based on the 30 years since Kinnock became leader: “Thirty years of moving right and championing finance capital and American imperialism, as well as dumping the welfare state.” In fact, Labour governments have always championed the City of London and its financial services sector, since the first in 1924, when Philip Snowden as chancellor of the exchequer notoriously clung to the ‘orthodox’ ‘treasury view’ and Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister devoted much of his attention to the ‘Dawes plan’, which aimed to avoid a German state default. Labour has championed American imperialism since 1945. Before 1945 Labour championed British imperialism, which then held the role US imperialism holds now, and it has continued to champion British imperialism so far as it is relevant to do so.
On the welfare state, Hearse’s argument is based on Labour’s rhetoric rather than its practice. Radical change in welfare structures certainly took place over the period 1939-47, driven by the political dynamics of World War II and its outcome. This shift was ‘dramatised’ by the 1945 Labour government, though this political drama largely involved continuing changes begun in wartime rather than - as might have been the case under a Tory government - rolling them back. At other times, Labour governments - beginning with 1924 - have generally tinkered with the existing welfare systems. They have done so within the limits given by the ‘public opinion’ of the state bureaucracy and the professional-managerial class, in a way which hands down crumbs to the poorest, rather than making any attempt to supersede the right of the upper and upper-middle classes to pay for better treatment (private health and education, pensions and so on). Gordon Brown did the same thing as chancellor under the Blair government - pursuing policies widely characterised as ‘redistribution by stealth’.
Hearse says that the “Euro-left parties” are “a significant step forward that is able to represent - in a partial, uneven and contradictory way - the interests of the working class and the oppressed against the politics of austerity and destitution that neoliberalism represents”. As I have just indicated, however, even Gordon Brown could be said to represent these interests “in a partial, uneven and contradictory way”. He characterises Ford’s response as “sectarian rejection” of such parties in the interests of a “Leninism” which “is, really speaking, Stalinism”. He adds: “For Ford the allowable parties are the significant parties supported by the working class and the properly ‘Leninist’: which in Britain conveniently fits into the Labour Party and the CPB/Morning Star.”
In this context, Hearse denies Ford’s specific claim about LU: that its ‘political offer’ is simply social democratic. This passage is worth quoting in full:
There is absolutely no chance of the Left Party being anything other than a socialist, anti-capitalist party. But there is also no chance of a Left Party being successfully established without it being a pluralist arena where different conceptions of socialism can exist. The role of central planning, cooperatives, private companies and the market are all likely to be hotly contested. The party will have to be broad enough to encompass the many thousands of people hostile to neoliberal capitalism who want alternatives based on equality and social justice, but who are not yet ready to give their affiliation to a particular brand of socialism, or even call their radicalism ‘socialist’ at all. This is particularly applicable to young people whose political formation has taken place in an epoch where socialism appeared off the political map.
Most of all, quite unlike social democratic parties, a new left party based on modern socialism has to be open to the aspirations and movements of the specially oppressed, in particular to feminism.
This statement has two very remarkable features. First is “the many thousands of people hostile to neoliberal capitalism who want alternatives based on equality and social justice, but who are not yet ready to give their affiliation to a particular brand of socialism, or even call their radicalism ‘socialist’ at all.” Who are these people? Is LU really going to try to pick up all the youth from the 57,000 varieties of anarchism, and so on? Or is the aim to capture the base of the Greens? Or Catholic ‘social justice’ types? What social class do they come from (given that the urban working class still largely votes Labour)? As Marc Mulholland remarked in his presentation at Communist University 2013, the Labour Party card still characterises the party as “socialist”. So, in the absence of further specification of who is meant, Hearse seems to want to position LU to the right of Labour - like the Eurocommunists’ ‘broad democratic alliance’.
We should also note that he says those thousands are “not yet ready”. This marks Hearse’s conception of LU as a broad front with a semi-hidden ‘revolutionary’ group operating within it, with the broad front serving as the transmission belt towards the - temporarily undisclosed - politics of the ‘revolutionaries’.
The second remarkable feature is the statement that “quite unlike social democratic parties a new left party based on modern socialism has to be open to the aspirations and movements of the specially oppressed, in particular to feminism”. Reading this statement is an extraordinary time-warp, as if comrade Hearse had gone to sleep in the 1970s and woken up in 2013. Has he not noticed changes to discrimination law, to the law of rape (and attempts to change rape prosecution practice, which made the SWP disputes committee appear as dinosaurs), all-women shortlists, the endless discourse of ethnic and religious ‘communities’, civil partnerships and gay marriage? The reality is that for a considerable time now, “to be open to the aspirations and movements of the specially oppressed, in particular to feminism” has served the social democratic parties (as it did Marxism Today) as a political cover for downgrading the issue of the political representation of the working class.
Socialist Resistance, of course, does not propose the abandonment of ‘Leninism’ for itself or for any unification of ‘revolutionary Marxists’ of which it may be part, but only the renaming of ‘democratic centralism’ as ‘revolutionary democracy’, so as to avoid the opprobrium which Stalinism and SWP-style Trotskyism has attracted to the first phrase. Rather, what is proposed is a twin-track approach, in which the ‘broad front’ will have loose discipline, open discussion, etc, but in which something else is appropriate for the ‘revolutionary Marxist’ nucleus.
The organisational difference is made apparent in Alan Thornett’s July 7 reply to Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative on the organisation question, which offers an account of what Socialist Resistance might mean by a “revolutionary party”:9
A revolutionary party has the long-term strategic aim of bringing about (or seeking to bring about) the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by socialism - ie, social ownership of the means of production under democratic workers’ control - through the mobilisation and self-organisation of the working class.
A broad party is designed to provide political leadership to the workers’ movement in the day-to-day struggle and to create the political conditions for a fightback against the attacks of capitalism in all its forms and in doing so to take the movement in a socialist direction.
In (inexplicit) contradistinction to Hardy’s and Cooper’s argument for open discussion, Thornett sets up the organisational norms recently agreed by Socialist Resistance:
SR is based on the principles of maximum participation in the decision-making processes and maximum unity in action. Whilst members are expected to carry out the decisions of the organisation, and not to campaign against them in public, they are not expected to advocate policies with which they disagree. When minority views are expressed in public there is an obligation to explain that they are minority views.
This is half-valid, but significantly misses the important distinction, made by Lenin in 1907, between decisions on positions and proposals for future actions (open to continued discussion), and decisions on agreed present actions (binding while the action continues). The point of erasing the distinction is not to authorise disunity in agreed present actions (which would make SR less disciplined than a trade union): it is to allow tighter leadership control of public discussion than was the practice of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (or that of the pre-1921 Bolsheviks).
On July 14 Jara Handala raised in a comment below the article the question of the spring 1917 debate among the Bolsheviks: weren’t Lenin (and the Vyborg District) ‘campaigning against’ ‘decisions of the organisation’? And how much of SR’s pre-conference discussion has been or will be published? As yet, he has had no reply.
And why should these norms, which Thornett claims are merely principles of democracy, be inappropriate to a broad left party? Or, indeed, to a trade union?
In reality, the practice of SR is not full openness of discussion: differences appear only internally, or in public in redacted form: as much as the leadership thinks should be made public. Indeed, SR’s new norms for internal discussion set out to breed short-beaked pigeons:
... we need to try to develop our discussions in a non-adversarial way, which does not personalise discussions or dismiss the contributions of people we disagree with.
We want to create an organisation which in its internal meetings, its public forums, its internal discussions and its public face allows everyone to feel able to have their say, whether they are a contact coming for the first time, a new recruit to the group or someone involved in revolutionary politics for decades. This is the reason why the national committee took a decision that our discussion list should be moderated - a decision which we are asking the conference to endorse. Without moderation there was a danger that the democratic rights of some comrades were being ignored.
In other words, bureaucratic norms of acceptable discourse, like those proposed by the Left Unity draft ‘safe spaces’ policy.
The other side of this coin is the basis of unity. I have written on this issue before, in relation to SR’s current unity offensive, towards the International Socialist Network and ACI (but not Workers Power or the CPGB, or anyone else);10 and in relation to its prior 2008 unity project, towards those who split with the SWP when the SWP abandoned Respect.11 The fact is that the leaders of SR and its predecessors have shown by their regroupment policies (extending over the last 30 years or more) that they actually think that agreement on tactics is necessary for the unity of ‘revolutionary Marxists’. This produces ephemeral unity as tactics shift, leading to a new split. In addition, it tends to sterilise public discussion, as dissenting contributions which might interfere with the current diplomatic tactic have to be redacted or suppressed. The resulting tendency towards feebleness of debate, and hence towards an unrealistic group-think, is visible in Hearse’s critique of Ford.
Murray Smith’s ‘Will the real European left stand up?’ appeared two months before Phil Hearse’s article; but it is narrower, better and more profound than Hearse’s article, asking questions Hearse avoids.
Smith shares Hearse’s views about the Labour Party and equivalent parties: “social democracy is now, and has been for some time, part of the neoliberal consensus”. And hence “it is losing support from its traditional supporters and a space is opening up to the left”.
Ford’s critique of the “Euro-left” overlaps with his critique of the idea of political space: for Ford, the reality is not space opening up to the left, but a weakening of the traditional support for ‘official communism’, a rightwards movement towards social democracy, together with a weaker showing at the polls than the old European communist parties. A substantial part of Smith’s response is directed to arguing against this view by reviewing several cases.
This is largely a matter of the time-span of the comparison. For Ford, the present state of the continental left is to be compared with the strong ‘official’ communist parties of the Latin countries, Greece and eastern Europe in the 1970s. From this perspective only a decline can be seen. For Smith, the comparison is with the nadir of the left in the wake of the fall of the Soviet bloc, and from this perspective the left has somewhat revived.
Moreover, in Smith’s view, this revival has been accompanied by some leftward movement, by, for example, Synapsismos in forming the Syriza coalition and in refusing a government coalition with any of the pro-memorandum parties after the last election, or by the Parti Communiste Français in the turn to the Front de Gauche. He says that Die Linke in Germany and other cases elsewhere show left parliamentary representation in countries without historically strong post-war ‘official’ communist parties and with labour movement structures (unitary trade unions) closer to the British.
The question of movement to the left poses that of whether these parties are ‘reformist’, as Ford argues. Smith, I think rightly, calls the issue into question. He makes the point that “there has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country with a more or less long tradition of bourgeois democracy”, so that strategy and tactics “will be very different from Russia in 1917, not to mention China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia”. In fact “it is difficult to see a revolutionary process that does not involve a left alliance winning an election”; but “All that will be the subject of debates based on experience, and no-one has a blueprint.”
Smith is right to call the issue into question as he does here, but “debates based on experience, and no-one has a blueprint” is a cop-out: to some questions we do already know answers. Take a single, concrete example. As Smith points out, (some) European comrades have (correctly) drawn the lesson from the disaster of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy that joining, and hence taking responsibility for, coalition governments ‘of the left’ with the ‘social-liberals’ is a disastrous idea. But this is no 21st century novelty: it is the painful rediscovery of a point which Marx and Engels argued throughout their later lives on the basis of the experience of Louis Blanc in 1848, and which the Second International debated on the basis of the role of Alexandre Millerand in the French government from 1899 on. The rediscovery has been necessary after decades in which the 1945- 48 coalition governments in eastern Europe were taken to license the idea that a coalition government was an ‘arena of struggle’.
So there are lessons available from the work of the left and the workers’ movement before 1914 in countries with parliamentary regimes and elections. Hence, if we stop imagining that revolutions in countries with pre-capitalist regimes (like Russia) will serve us for a direct strategic model, we do not have to start completely from scratch. Another example: British and American socialists before World War I developed critiques of the political role of the judicial power in rule-of-law constitutionalism, based on their own experience and that of trade unionists. Post-1918 leftists let these critiques fall into the background, in favour of the simplicities of the ‘Soviet model’, and they were forgotten. The Eurocommunists, and the Fourth International in its Theses on socialist democracy, in reacting away from the Stalinist ‘Soviet model’, swallowed the judicial power (as “socialist legality”) without any consideration of these critiques and their implications.
More fundamentally, the French possibilists, the British Fabians, the German, Georg Vollmar, and Eduard Bernstein in his (in)famous 1899 Preconditions of socialism, argued that the condition for obtaining serious reforms was to rule out the spectre of revolution (which, Bernstein argued, was anyhow illusory) by committing to gradualism and loyalty to the nation-state and its constitution.
Is this claim true? The historical record on it is at best ambiguous. Most of what Labour and similar governments have done has been tinkering. The history seems, rather, to suggest that major reforms were available when three elements were present: first, a perceived threat of the overthrow of the political regime; second, a workers’ leadership willing to settle for reforms; and third, that the capitalist class saw a prospect of stable profitability even if the reforms were conceded. Thus the repeal of the Corn Laws and the early Factories Acts followed, and represented an alternative to, Chartism; the Reform Act 1867 and Trade Union Act 1871 followed, and represented an alternative to, trade union involvement in the First International; in many countries, Britain included, universal suffrage was introduced in the aftermath of 1917; 1945 is obvious.
The institutional forms of the global political order of nation-state constitutional-parliamentary regimes generally give the capitalist class a veto over substantial change: through their legal agents (including the judiciary); or through political corruption, gerrymandered ‘senates’ and similar bodies; or through flight of capital as dislocating the economy.
Hence, in the absence of a perceived threat to the political regime, there would be no real reason to concede major reforms. In the absence of a leadership willing to settle for them, there would be no point in doing so, since it would merely whet the appetite for more. In the absence of a stable prospect of profitability, reforms might be merely conceded temporarily to pacify the masses, while the capitalist class prepared extra-constitutional revenge (as in Weimar Germany, or the Popular Front government in France, leading to the sabotage and later collaborationism of the French elite in 1940-45).
Post-1945 there were profound geopolitical reasons for conceding extensive reforms, as part of the cold war. The most recent historical period, in contrast, has pretty clearly been one in which the capitalist class is primarily concerned to withdraw concessions made either in response to the Russian Revolution or after 1945, or after other crises (as, in France, 1968). The course of events since 2008 shows that this commitment continues under the name of ‘structural reform’. The common commitment of the main workers’ parties and trade unions to loyalty to the nation-states and their constitutions prevents any serious threat to the political regimes which could activate a reversal of this trend.
Hence all that is “practically possible” within this framework of constitutional patriotism is to mitigate and slow down the tendency, and to do so by stealth (as Brown, in fact, did as chancellor). Even slight left gestures on economic issues produce, as currently in France, flight of capital (as yet still mild in France).
The consequence is that the issue of ‘reform or revolution’ has effects in live present-day politics. Constitutional patriotism, or commitment to gradualism, under present conditions means commitment to rightward-moving ‘realism’. But this is not the understanding of ‘reform or revolution’ common on the far left, as can be seen most transparently in Callinicos and Blackledge.
I said earlier on that Callinicos found in Owen Jones an opportunity to shift discussion away from the SWP’s Stalinist internal functioning (and its natural consequence: that justice cannot be seen to be done in disputes between individual members of the apparatus caste and their associates, on the one hand, and, on the other, junior lay members, as in the ‘Delta’ case and others like it), onto the issue of ‘reform or revolution’. But this is an imperfect account, since the SWP’s conception of revolution tends naturally to lead to its Stalinoid organisational conclusions.
Callinicos’s February Socialist Review article says that “In 1968 the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists, decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation.” Why? First, “workers’ struggles have again and again developed into revolutionary movements that challenge the very basis of capitalist domination”. But “these revolutionary movements tend to be held back by traditions that represent a compromise between resistance to and acceptance of the capitalist system”. And “The hold of these traditions on workers is reinforced by the way in which the workings of capitalism tend to fragment their consciousness ...” He continues:
The reason why the experience of October 1917 is so significant is because the Bolsheviks succeeded in breaking the grip of the reformists ... What this involved was the Bolsheviks acting as what is sometimes called a ‘vanguard party’. They represented for most of their existence a small minority of the Russian working class. But this minority was united by a shared Marxist understanding of the world. And, above all, it organised and acted on the basis of this understanding.
The Bolsheviks collectively intervened in the struggles of the Russian working class. In doing so, they put forward proposals that would help to advance the struggle in question. But they simultaneously sought to encourage workers to recognise that they had to fight for political power and, to achieve this, to support the Bolshevik Party itself.
This is an orthodox 1970s account of ‘Leninism’. It is misleading in the way in which all such accounts are misleading. First, it represents the Bolsheviks as a long-standing party rather than - till 1914 and in some ways till 1917 - a faction of the RSDLP. Second, it omits the seriousness with which the RSDLP and its factions took its written programme. Third, it omits the RSDLP’s - and the Bolsheviks’ - electoral activity and electoral tactics (in 1917 as well as before). Portraying Bolshevism without its electoral activities is a nonsense; but it makes ‘Bolshevising’ anti-parliamentarist grouplets more plausible.
And fourth, and fundamentally, it omits the fact that the Bolshevik-dominated ‘Prague conference’ RSDLP won the overwhelming majority of the votes in the workers’ curia in the 1912 duma elections. No doubt the party membership was a small minority of the class; but we would all take the SWP (or any of the left groups) a whole lot more seriously if they won most of the working class constituencies in a general election. This was not a grouplet which ‘made it big’ in the course of 1917. It was a major party with mass electoral support before the outbreak of war, which was temporarily knocked back by repression in 1914-16 because it refused to support the war effort.
From this narrative Callinicos shifts to the decline of the traditional mass parties (Labour and so on), the rise of extraparliamentary struggles (Seattle 1999, the Arab revolutions and Occupy), the relative weakness of strike struggles (blocked, he argues, by the trade union bureaucracy), Owen Jones as an advocate of ‘reclaiming Labour’ and the nature of the Labour Party, ‘movementism’ and the SWP’s united front policy, before returning to the issue of the SWP’s organisational forms:
…what our critics dislike most about us - how we organise ourselves - is crucial to our ability, as Jones puts it, to punch above our weight. Our version of democratic centralism comes down to two things. First, decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members. This is necessary if we are to test our ideas in action.
Secondly, to ensure that these decisions are implemented and that the SWP intervenes effectively in the struggle, a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction to our party’s work. It is this model of democratic centralism that has allowed us to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.
Ian Birchall’s May reply to Callinicos consisted of two elements. In the first place, he introduced what a good many on the left already knew: the falsity of Callinicos’ 1970s narrative of Bolshevism. He did so in a somewhat ‘coded’ way, because Birchall remains party to the cult of Tony Cliff, and a full use of the work of Lars T Lih and others on Bolshevism would call this cult seriously into question. Second, he moved from there to criticise the conduct of the SWP leadership in the present crisis by reference to the earlier history of the SWP and debates in 1979-82.
In his July Socialist Review article Callinicos shifted ground in two ways. The first part does this by increasing the specification of the issue of ‘reform versus revolution’. Here the initial target is the 1970s ‘left Eurocommunist’, Nicos Poulantzas (whose ideas notoriously influence Richard Seymour of the International Socialist Network):
A renewed vogue for the ideas of the Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas has encouraged the illusion that the problem can be finessed thanks to the impact of class struggles in fracturing the state. But historical experience shows that even a capitalist state shattered by mass upheavals preserves a basic unity provided by the apparatuses of coercion. We can see this very clearly in the central role played by the army in Egypt.
So revolutionaries still confront the problem of how the working class and the oppressed can match and ultimately smash the concentrated power of the state, sustained by their own self-organisation. It is this that lies behind the question of ‘the party’: how to marry what Antonio Gramsci called “the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the directing and organising will of the centre”?
Callinicos has clearly not thought this through. If it was really the case that “even a capitalist state shattered by mass upheavals preserves a basic unity provided by the apparatuses of coercion”, the only possible revolutionary strategy would be some variant on the Maoist idea of ‘prolonged people’s war’, to build up a military counter-power to that of the state. The supporters of this policy in the late 1960s-70s (‘urban guerrillas’ and so on) conclusively demonstrated its complete uselessness outside of peasant-majority countries with subsisting (though declining) pre-capitalist relations of production. Any strategy for the overthrow of the state will necessarily involve fracturing the armed forces: that is, getting enough of the military to refuse orders to shoot, bomb, etc, and to back the mass movement instead, to allow collapse of the state order as such.
In Egypt there was not a revolutionary overthrow of the state in this sense: instead, the army tops merely lopped off their own titular head (Hosni Mubarak) in order to demobilise opposition before refusals to obey orders, which were just beginning, got out of hand. Having done so once, they were then in a favourable position to do so again once it became clear that Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood were attracting serious opposition. This series of events, in spite of the mass mobilisations, is not even comparable to Portugal 1974-76, let alone 1917.
Then Callinicos shifts from Lenin to György Lukács: the SWP’s preferred theoretical interpreter of Lenin. He quotes from History and class-consciousness the proposition that:
On the level of pure theory the most disparate views and tendencies are able to coexist peacefully: antagonisms are only expressed in the form of discussions which can be contained within the framework of one and the same organisation without disrupting it. But no sooner are these same questions given organisational form than they turn out to be sharply opposed and even incompatible.
Lukács was doing two things here. First, he was carrying to a philosophical level the fictitious narrative of the 1903 split in the RSDLP as being ‘about’ the alternative formulations on the basis of membership, and as being the start of the Bolshevik Party. Secondly, he was theorising the Comintern Third Congress’s “too Russian” (Lenin) Resolution on organisation; and with it the ban on factions, and the hopeless attempt to preserve the party from class contamination by purges, which merely strengthened the apparatus faction. In both these activities he also helped lay the ground for the future arguments of the Stalin-Zinoviev- Kamenev troika against Trotsky, ‘Trotskyism’ and the first Left Opposition in 1923-24. The arguments of Lukács are part of the ‘prelude to Stalinism’.
Callinicos further shifts ground by appealing to Cliff (where Birchall is weak) against the historical Lenin (where Birchall is on stronger ground). He does so by diluting his original claim that IS “decided to adopt a Leninist model of organisation” down to “we decided to take the Bolsheviks’ experience as a reference point”: this dilution (involving misquoting himself) immunises the claim against historical criticism.
The appeal to Cliff also contains a revealing point:
Cliff was a great believer in what he called ‘creating facts’. In other words, the leadership should be prepared to take new initiatives and then, if they were successful, go back to the organisation and argue for the experience to be generalised.
In other words, the claim that decisions, “once they have been taken, by majority vote … are binding on all members” has a big exception: the leadership is not bound, but free to take “new initiatives” without majority backing. “Argu[ing] for the experience to be generalised” is, in fact, the work done by the centrally appointed district organisers. This idea that the membership is bound, but the leadership is not, is at the heart of the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism.
It entails an antagonistic social relation between the apparatus and the lay members, whose labour and dues support “new initiatives”, projects chosen by the apparatus leadership, not by the members. By refusing to be bound either by any formally agreed programme or by conference decisions, the apparatus turns itself into a self-selecting group of exploiters of the lay members. The apparatus is then, by this social relation, driven to support apparatus members against both dissent and personal complaints by lay members, leading to cases like Delta’s.
Paul Blackledge offers a more elaborate theorisation of Callinicos’s ‘reform or revolution’ narrative. The second half of the article is the familiar narrative of the failures of ‘left reformism’ and ‘centrism’ - more exactly, their absorption into the general project of ‘left’ governments - starting with a critique of Syriza, and working through Bennism, the 1950s-60s British ‘new left’, Eurocommunism, Poulantzas, Rifondazione and (in the conclusion) the Second International and Karl Kautsky. The first half provides the core of the theoretical argument.
We begin with a slightly odd reading of Marx:
At the most general level reformism is best understood in relationship to what Marx called the standpoint of civil society or the standpoint of political economy. Marx used these terms interchangeably to refer to a wide spectrum of beliefs that effectively naturalised capitalism.
From here we go to a peculiar account of the state, which appears to confuse the state (army, police, bureaucracy, etc) with the form of law. For Blackledge, it seems (relying on Bolshevik jurist Evgeny Pashukanis), an appearance that the state is neutral is created through the ‘rule of law’ and that the law treats people as “atomised and egoistic property owners”. This is, of course, true of law (and, it must be said, of antique and feudal as well as of modern law). But
… while states operating through the rule of law are (ideally) neutral, theirs is essentially a form of neutrality in respect to intra-capitalist conflicts. There is no neutrality when conflicts challenge property rights because human rights within the rule of law are conceived essentially as property rights.
This is a truth, but a half-truth. On the one hand, conflicts need not challenge formal property rights in order to produce the absence of state neutrality: witness anti-union laws, since strikes do not challenge property rights as such, but merely the terms of the employment bargain. On the other, the state does take away formal property rights for the benefit of capitalists: witness, for example, Kelo v New London (2005) in the US (taking property for ‘redevelopment’).
Here Blackledge loses the understanding of the class state (“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” - Communist manifesto), in favour of a state whose behaviour is directly and immediately determined by economics. So that, for Blackledge, “the capitalist separation between politics and economics creates a space for thinking of states as possible instruments of radical anti-capitalist change”. Suppose, however, that there were no reforms and that in all cases without exception the state did nothing but uphold capitalist property rights: would it then not become transparent, in spite of this ‘separation’, that states were not “possible instruments of radical anti-capitalist change”?
Blackledge’s explanation goes back to the ‘naturalness’ of capitalism and ‘civil society’:
Although capitalism appears natural and fixed when viewed from the standpoint of the atomised individual, it is in a constant process of change. These changes generate innumerable and continually varying conflicts which underpin a diversity of social movements for change within the system. Though these movements are typically reformist in scope, it is perhaps of more importance that they move. For as movements they challenge the ‘normal’ apathetic way life is experienced in civil society ... though most people usually join social movements with the idea of improving life within capitalism, their experience within these movements often points beyond these limits.
Indeed, the experience of collective struggle in social movements with nominally moderate goals can create a space to challenge and sometimes even transcend assumptions about the naturalness of capitalism itself. This process is typically a function of the size and militancy of social movements. If social movements become sufficiently large and radical, they can open a door to a new experience of capitalism. Rather than perceiving it only as a power over atomised individuals, social movements often create conditions whereby people can begin to feel their collective power to change it. Thus it is that revolutionary movements can grow out of the struggle for reforms.
Really? How often? Chartism was overtly directed against the political regime; so were the revolutions of 1848. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the German, Austrian and Hungarian revolutions of 1918, were all triggered by military defeat and directed against the political regimes. France 1968 was not a fully revolutionary crisis, but even there the trigger for going beyond student unrest in the capital was the common role of the CRS riot police against students in May, and against strikers in the years before. Portugal 1974 started as a military coup, growing out of the contradictions of decaying Portuguese imperialism; the Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions in 1979 were overtly directed against the political regimes, as were the events of the 2011 ‘Arab spring’.
This list confirms Lenin’s view: “Oppression alone, no matter how great, does not always give rise to a revolutionary situation in a country. In most cases it is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way.”12
Nonetheless, from Blackledge’s analysis of ‘movements’, it follows that:
If we aim to work with reformist leaders when they play a role in building real movements, we should also aim to be in a position to offer an alternative leadership to theirs as and when their orientation to the state threatens to undermine the movement. To do this requires that revolutionaries constantly try to prove in practice that our methods are better able to take the movement forward (emphasis added).
This argument presupposes that under the unrevolutionary surface of capitalist politics, there is mass anger always waiting to burst out, so that any ‘movement’ can overflow into revolutionary crisis. For if this was not the case, unless the question of revolution was immediately posed - “the upper classes [are] unable to rule and govern in the old way” - limited reform, or a partial negotiated success in a strike, might be achieved; but continued attempted mobilisation would lead, not to revolutionary crisis, but only to diminuendo defeat and demoralisation. In a limited sense we have seen an example of this recently in the long-run diminishing returns of the Stop the War Coalition’s calls for demonstrations.
Later, attempting to identify the core of the issue, Blackledge says:
What distinguishes revolutionaries from reformists is that we aim at overcoming the entirety of capitalist social relations, including the state form, through new forms of democracy that transcend the characteristically capitalist separation between politics and economics. We are fighting for freedom as embodied in the institutions of workers’ democracy that have been thrown up at the high points of workers’ struggles over the last century.
The point is clear enough: revolutionaries aim for a regime of workers’ councils, because such a regime ends the “characteristically capitalist separation between politics and economics”. But this claimed “separation” seems itself problematic: why should James Carvill say “the economy, stupid” (about Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign), the Tory press promote the big lie that Gordon Brown was responsible for the deficit caused by bailing out the banks in 2008-09, or “trust on the economy” be a regular polling question, if politics is really separated from economics?
In reality, Blackledge and the authors he relies on have taken Marx’s critique of a certain sort of systematic laisser-faire apologetics, and muddled it up with Marx’s explanation in the Grundrisse and Capital volume 1 of why things and money appear to us to have inherent value. They have then applied the resulting theoretical mélange directly to a world in which governments are routinely expected by the general electorate - ie, most people or ‘the masses’ - to manage the economy (even when, through privatisations, deregulation and ‘financial globalisation’, they have substantially reduced their own power to do so).
And this piece of political irrealism is offered as an explanation for the fact of ‘reformism’, which today means merely that most people do not wish to rerun Stalinism, and that the far left, whether directly (Ford) or by its organisational practices (SWP) advertises itself as offering to rerun Stalinism.
It is certainly not the case that the SWP et al busies itself in agitation and propaganda for a workers’ council form of government, endeavouring to persuade militants that this would be a superior alternative to the capitalist constitution (except in asides in theoretical articles like Blackledge’s). How, then, does it hope to reach mass support for such a conception? The answer is back in the earlier part of Blackledge’s argument: it is the experience of mobilisation itself which is to throw up both radicalisation and embryonic workers’ councils, without the party ‘putting off newly radicalising militants’ by arguing for its long-term alternative.
Hence, it follows, the key to revolutionary politics is not the union of socialism with the working class movement, but the connection of the ‘revolutionary party’ with whatever sections of society happen to be mobilised for extra-parliamentary action: because only mobilisation allows escape from ‘apathy’ and the choice between Tory Tweedledum and Labour Tweedledee. But then it does, really, logically follow that ‘the party’ has to make a series of wrenching turns to wherever mobilisation is either happening or about to happen.
And this, in turn, implies the whole infernal apparatus of the SWP’s organisational forms. The point is to keep members ‘mobilised’ and connected with ‘newly radicalising layers’. The decisions about where to go have to be taken nationally, and to respond to very short-term movements in the political agenda. So they have to be taken by the full-time centre; and it has to be the case that internal democracy is merely formal: internal discussions are a diversion from the essential connection with ‘newly radicalising layers’; the apparatus and its district organisers are thus the essential core of the party, to be protected against the ‘backward’ lay members, who might wish to resist the latest turn in order to cling to an older project.
What can we positively draw out of this extended negative critique?
The first issue is the Labour Party. This party grew out of the idea that the working class should have independent party political representation, and from the growth of socialist groups in the 1890s. But, as created, it was - and remains - a party controlled by a coalition of the high trade union officials and the Labour (originally Lib-Lab) MPs, with its theories provided by the Fabians and their descendants. It has always been mainly a party which seeks a limited degree of reform, egalitarianism and redistribution within the limits of what is acceptable from the point of view of the ‘British national interest’ (the interests of British capital, and in particular City finance, which is central to these interests) and ‘public opinion’ (middle class opinion).
Within this framework, Labour in opposition can tack to the left and has done so - and is doing so, in a very cagey way, right now. But Labour as seeking to be a party of government is not capable of driving a fundamental shift of British politics to the left, or of doing more than slowing down the current drift of politics to the right. The result is a rightwards ratchet effect: a Labour government is followed by a Tory government to its right; a new Labour government leaves the Tory rightward innovations in place, leading to demoralisation, leading to a new, further-right Tory government.
In addition, it is fairly clear that there have been significant left wings in Labour only under the influence of the external ‘official’ Communist Party: this is quite clear of Stafford Cripps’s 1930s Socialist League, of an important section of the 1950s left, and of the Labour broad left of the 1970s-early 1980s. The absence of a serious organised party to the left of Labour therefore makes turning Labour into “an instrument of deeper social advance” (Ford) a lot less likely.
Why? The answer goes back a long way. Labour was forced to the left in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution. But the Fabian drafters of the new ‘clause four’ commitment to socialism, Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw, who were familiar with German socialism, were careful to adopt a Lassallean definition of the aim (“the full fruits of their industry”), as opposed to the Marxist conception of the aim of working class rule. And Labour had already signalled its loyalty to king, empire and constitution by service during the war, and now resignalled it by rejecting the affiliation of the newly founded Communist Party - a rejection repeated at Labour conferences in the 1920s, in 1936 and 1946. The refusal of affiliation signalled the illegitimacy within Labour of any real alternative to constitutional patriotism. Weak leftwing groups are, of course, tolerable within Labour; but commitment to working only within the Labour framework gives the constitutional-loyalists the whip hand.
‘Reclaiming Labour’ is therefore nonsense. ‘Claiming Labour’ for the working class would require, primarily, radical democratisation of both the trade unions and the party, creating the effective subordination of the union full-time officials and Labour’s elected representatives to their lay memberships. It would require the end of the old bans and proscriptions of communists (currently not in a formal rule, but a persisting idea) and the newer ‘party within a party’ rules, to allow the open affiliation of left organisations to Labour. It is likely that such a democratisation - if it ever happened - would produce a new rightwing split in the style of the 1980s Social Democratic Party. It therefore requires not only willingness to democratise, but also willingness to sacrifice the next election (at least) to the role of opposition in the interests of the working class. This, of course, takes us back to Murray Smith’s point, that some “Euro-left” comrades have noticed that under present conditions the political price of government participation together with ‘social-liberals’ exceeds its advantages: what is needed is a party of opposition in the interests of the working class, before the question of government can be really and usefully posed.
Secondly, the idea that Labour, and the continental European socialist and Labour parties, have by moving right created a ‘political space’ to their left, to be occupied by the old ‘Labour’ offering of limited reforms and Keynesianism, is plain nonsense; on this Ford is right. The rightward moves of the Labour and socialist parties responded to a move of the general political climate to the right.
If we ask why this move to the right happened, the answer is in fact perfectly clear. In the first place, whatever the true nature of the Soviet bloc regimes, their fall - and the transmutation of ‘communist’ governments in China and Vietnam into presiding over radical marketising and obvious sweatshops - has discredited the idea of socialism. The left both within and outside the Labour and socialist parties was too much invested in the ‘Soviet model’ not to suffer from this.
Secondly, small capital and the petty bourgeoisie has always been largely hostile to welfarism without the distinction between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, to trade unions, and so on; and large capitalists generally saw these phenomena as concessions which were necessary in response to the geopolitical reality of Soviet tanks on the Elbe, mass communist parties in Italy and France, and so on. The workers’ upsurge of the later 1960s-70s revealed that the concessions - the cold war regime - were failing to hold the line. Already by the later 1970s capitalists and their political representatives had begun to move from the policy of ‘containment’ to that of ‘roll-back’: and we continue to live in the period of ‘roll-back’, which has been accelerated by the fall of the Soviet bloc.
The ‘political space’ Left Unity supporters see is not due to the rightwards movement of social democracy, but to something different. The ‘east Asian crisis’ of 1997, the 2001 dot-com crash and most recently 2008-09, have mitigated neoliberal capitalist triumphalism, and by doing so reopened a limited degree of political space - in the range of perhaps 4%- 15% of the vote - for the advocacy of radical political and social change going beyond capitalism, as opposed to Fabian marginal tinkering. On the one hand, in Britain FPTP probably means the potential is at the lower end of this range. On the other, under extreme conditions, like those in Greece, advocates of radical change who have already reached this level can win substantially wider support. Even the Scottish Socialist Party, which in some ways represented itself as ‘old Labour’, offered a project of radical change in Tommy Sheridan’s and Alan McCombes’s Imagine - even if the project was for a socialism-in-one-country utopia.
Most British left groups, however - Morning Star/CPB, SWP, SPEW, SR, WP and so on - avoid in elections openly advocating radical political and social change going beyond capitalism. Instead, they seek to lurk within ‘broad-front’ organisations: either the Labour Party itself or projects which try to characterise themselves as replacement for the Labour Party: Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect, Tusc and so on. All three sorts of arguments discussed here - those of Ford, SR and the SWP - are versions of this approach. Why?
At a certain level, broad-frontism grows out of the ‘transitional approach’: the idea, most elaborately developed among our present authors by Blackledge, that people will come to the idea of overthrowing the state through ‘mobilisation’ round partial issues, while avoiding addressing constitutional ones. But this approach in turn was in origin a response to the failure of western communists to win over a majority of the working class in the 1920s, and it continues in the face of repeated failure as a response to the unpopularity of open communist politics.
At the end of the day this unpopularity reflects the experience of Stalinism and its failure. It reflects the experience of Stalinism in that the Soviet bloc countries were police states. It reflects the failure of Stalinism in that the common ‘official communist’ belief that the character of the regimes was a road to a broader victory which would allow the regimes to become democratic proved to be false. Though the USSR was able, with substantial material aid from the USA, to defeat Nazism, the USSR and countries on a similar model proved unable to stand the test of geopolitical competition against the USA and its allies. Both issues are taught in schools for history GCSE, and constantly insisted on by the capitalist and state media.
It is for this reason that - contrary to Ford, and to George Galloway some years ago - it is unavoidable to “talk about dead Russians”. It does not help the problem either to characterise the Soviet bloc regimes as ‘state capitalist’ or ‘bureaucratic collectivist’, or to insist on 1929- 30 and forced collectivisation, or 1937 and the purges, or the 1950s and ‘Khrushchevite revisionism’ as one or another moment of counterrevolution - because then the issue is unavoidably posed: why did the 1917 revolution end in whichever sort of counterrevolution you think did end it?
This issue inevitably poses two questions about the regime created in Russia in 1917- 21. The first is the sustainability of socialism (or, in Trotskyist terms, the dictatorship of the proletariat) in a single country, even a very large one, or a group of countries, given the existence of an international material division of labour, a world market and an international system of capitalist states. The second is the constitutional weaknesses of the political order which allowed the bureaucratic (or revisionist) counterrevolution to triumph.
These are not dead and gone historical questions. As to the first, it takes concrete form in the question, should socialists advocate withdrawal from the European Union? At opposite extremes of the present discussion, both Ford and Callinicos identify Syriza as reformist or centrist because of its refusal to call for withdrawal. Yet Research in Money and Finance’s study of the exit and default option (which it favoured) demonstrates that this would, in fact, require a full police state - barracks socialism - if it was not to lead to mass starvation.13 The reality is that in order to make plausible proposals for radical change going beyond capitalism we need to propose making these changes at an all-European level at minimum. To promote withdrawal from the EU is, then, to promote an obvious reactionary utopia.
As to the second, we have already encountered it in present-day politics in this article. Ford’s proposal identifies the trade union officials as representing the ‘mass movement’ and defends ‘Leninism’, meaning Stalinism. Any real transformation of the Labour Party would, on the contrary, require the subordination of the officials and elected representatives to the members. The SWP’s ‘Leninism’ is plainly worse in its operation than the capitalist constitutional regime: in effect, the SWP by its bureaucratic antics advertises the capitalists’ equation of communism with Stalinism.
Socialist Resistance is less obviously bureaucratic, but scratch the surface and you find a regime in which agreement on tactics is the basis of unity; the leadership controls what dissent is publishable; and there is a mysterious difference between the norms of a ‘broad’ party and a ‘revolutionary’ party. And if Ford is diplomatic towards Len McCluskey and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the present Socialist Resistance and their international co-thinkers have a long history of diplomacy towards their favoured bureaucratic leaders (for example, Galloway before he decided to stand in Scotland, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Fausto Bertinotti in Italy).
This persistence with bureaucratic centralism produces, as its natural negation, a variety of forms of anarchism; which, in reality, naturally tip over into their own forms of dictatorship of the unelected and unaccountable spokespeople. Horizontalism and consensus decision-making meant, in the World Social Forum, control by the Brazilian Workers Party; in the European Social Forum, control by Rifondazione; in its London meeting, control by Ken Livingstone per pro (Redmond O’Neill). And so on.
Reform and revolution
‘Reform or revolution’ is a real issue. And it is a present issue. But the politics of revolution is about aims, not methods. I have already made the basic point. The present constitutional order gives the capitalist class veto power - and more - over state action. If there is a threat to this constitutional order, major reforms may under certain circumstances be conceded to avoid revolution - the overthrow of the constitution. As long as the workers’ movement remains loyal to the constitution and the ‘British national interest’, however, the available choices for reforms are very limited. And all the more limited in that, having seen off Stalinism in 1989-91, the capitalist class globally is currently disposed to withdraw as far as possible reforms conceded since 1917.
‘Revolution’ means overthrowing this constitutional order and replacing it with a constitutional order in which the working class is in control. Working class control requires radical or extreme democracy, as opposed to the existing minoritarian institutions of capitalist rule. To bring in workers’ power therefore inherently needs majority support.
How an actual majority comes about is not clearly predictable: so far Murray Smith is right. But there are some fairly clear negative judgments we can make. First, Fabian gradualism and coalitionism - to the extent that this policy was ever imagined as a gradual road to socialism - has been pretty clearly tested to destruction by the course of events since the 1970s. Positions ‘gained’ through reforms have definitely not ‘held’ and the reform process, on the contrary, has definitely gone into reverse in the last 40 years.
Second, as I observed against Callinicos, Maoism and Guevarism very rapidly proved worthless in the 1970s. It is possible under certain circumstances to win a majority in the course of fighting civil war - this is a part of what happened in Russia in 1918-21, since without winning a majority in a limited sense the Reds could not have defeated the Whites. But this is not a realistic project for developed capitalist countries.
Third. The bourgeoisie can overthrow the constitution by constitutional means - that is, a coup from the right, through a parliamentary majority which does not command a real majority, is possible. It can do so because the unelected components of the constitution - the monarch, the armed forces and police, the judiciary, the central core of the civil service, the mass media - are answerable to capital, and capital can obtain electoral support from the rural classes and the petty bourgeoisie for a parliamentary coup from the right. Contrary to the Militant’s old ‘Enabling Act’ schema, whereby ‘socialism’ is introduced by government decree, this is not possible for the working class. Only the elected element of the constitution - MPs and local councils - is at all answerable to the working class. Even there, the degree of accountability is limited, thanks to five-year parliaments, staggered local elections, FPTP and so on. A ‘Labour government committed to socialist policies’ would face delaying tactics and outright resistance from the unelected elements of the constitution, together with the flight of capital. If it turned to unconstitutional actions against these, without previously campaigning against the constitutional order, it would lose much of the support it previously had.
What is needed is to win a popular majority for the overthrow of the constitution, sufficient to cause a crisis of obedience of the armed forces, and thereby to make it practically feasible for the majority to coerce capital itself and the unelected elements of the constitutional order.
There is an approach to this problem which goes back to August Bebel. This is that capitalism will itself drive towards an acute crisis - kladderadatsch - both of capitalism and, hence, of the political authority of the constitutional regime. In a ‘revolutionary crisis’ which emerges in this way, a workers’ party which already organises a substantial minority can pass over to winning an actual majority and hence be able to force through revolutionary change. Marxist socialism is, in this view, a revolutionary party - one which seeks revolutionary change, and will use the opportunity of revolutionary crisis to bring it in. But it is not a revolution-making party, because it is the capitalists themselves who will bring down their own regime in a revolutionary crisis. Identifying the development of revolutionary conditions in this sense is the point of Lenin’s tag, quoted earlier: “… it is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way”.
The SWP authors - and many others with similar views - confuse this idea in three ways. The first is the illusion that revolutionary crisis can be created simply by bigger and better economic struggles - ‘moderate demands and militant actions’. As I have already indicated, there is no case where this has happened. The second is the illusion that a micro-party (like the SWP, or one of its competitors) can win a majority under conditions of revolutionary crisis. This rests on the falsification of Bolshevik history, noted above: the Bolsheviks were not a small group of the pure as of February 1917. There have been plenty of revolutionary crises since 1938. In no case has a small Trotskyist group broken through to majority support. The third is the illusion that being prepared for revolutionary crisis means being prepared for civil war, and therefore military discipline in the party - as the Communist International thought in 1920 (hence Callinicos’s near- Maoist argument, quoted above). The reality is that if the Bolsheviks had in 1917 been like their retrospective imagination of themselves in the light of 1918-21, they would not have won power.
In present-day politics, therefore, ‘reform or revolution’ is not about bigger and bigger street actions or strikes. Socialists need to promote the broadest possible solidarity, and to defend workers in struggle against the usual slanders, manoeuvres, police and judicial actions, and so on. But this is about promoting solidarity, not about any idea that these struggles will as such and in themselves tip over into revolution.
No doubt in a real revolutionary crisis, when the old regime cannot go on in the old way, bigger and bigger street actions and strikes will be important. But under those circumstances, broad masses will hardly need far-left groups to tell them to go out - ‘naming the day’ will be enough. Then, what millions of people will be looking for is an alternative means of collective decision-making to replace capitalist rule. The question of government will become central, as capitalists withdraw their capital to force a return to ‘order’ and by doing so dislocate the economy.
Revolutionary politics today is about rebuilding the workers’ movement at an elementary level after decades of bureaucratic decay. It is about exposing the corrupt character of the political regime, and rejecting constitutional loyalism in favour of radical democracy, both in the state and in our own movement. And it is about building working class solidarity and - as far as possible - common action internationally, as opposed to promoting nationalism.
Left Unity has started with contradictory aspirations: an aspiration to openly advocate radical social change, at least to the extent of the “Euro-left”; and an aspiration to create a replacement for the Labour Party.
The second aspiration is illusory. It flows not from the Labour Party having actually changed its nature - it has not. Rather, it is widespread on the left because the far-left groups, including the Morning Star/CPB, cling to indefensible conceptions: of ‘revolution’ as growing directly out of mobilisation round economic issues without the political constitution losing its legitimacy; of the reactionary utopia of ‘socialism in one country’; and of bureaucratic centralism, misidentified as ‘Leninism’. These indefensible conceptions lead the groups to avoid open defence of their politics and seek broader fronts to lurk in and act as transmission belts into their particular sect versions of ‘revolution’. But they are then driven to try to hold back real discussion of radical change in the broad fronts, to masquerade as ‘old Labour’, in the name of ‘speaking for broader forces’.
The first aspiration is possible, though it is a long-term project. There is potential political space left of Labour. But it is potential space left of Labourism and requires political transparency, and radical democratic and really internationalist politics and practice, to begin to overcome, slowly, the suspicion the left has earned over the last 80 years.
6. Socialist Review January 2013: www.socialistreview.org.uk/ article.php?articlenumber=12210.
7. I Birchall, ‘What does it mean to be a Leninist?’ Socialist Review June 2013: www.socialistreview.org.uk/article. php?articlenumber=12330; M Gonzalez, ‘Who will teach the teachers?’: www.scribd.com/doc/141977026/Who-Will-Teach-the-Teachers-2?secret_password=2ecnhcy9zk0z2fgp8x8s; I Birchall, ‘Ian Birchall replies to his critics’: http://revolutionarysocialism.tumblr.com/post/54588200394/ian-birchall-replies-to-his-critics. I flag Gonzalez and Birchall, among numerous more or less useful contributions to this discussion, because of their prominence in the SWP and engagement with Callinicos’s arguments.
8. A Callinicos, ‘What sort of party do we need?’ Socialist Review July 2013: www.socialistreview.org.uk/article. php?articlenumber=12358; P Blackledge, ‘Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today’ International Socialism July 2013: www.isj.org.uk/?id=903. Callinicos’s ‘Where is the British left going?’ (International Socialism July 2013: http://isj.org.uk/?id=901) is merely a ‘state of politics’ piece which does not add to this debate.
9. ‘A contribution to the discussion: two brief comments on “What kind of radical organisation?” by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper’: http://socialistresistance.org/5365/a-contribution-to-the-discussion-two-brief-comments-on-what-kind-of-radical-organisation-by-simon-hardy-and-luke-cooper.
10. M Macnair, ‘Theories of deception’ Weekly Worker June 20 2013.
11. M Macnair, ‘Regroupment” or rebranding’ Weekly Worker July 3 2008.
12. ‘May Day action by the revolutionary proletariat’ (1913): www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/jun/15.htm. The same point is made more elaborately in ‘The collapse of the Second International’ (1915), part II: www.marxists.org/archive/ lenin/works/1915/csi/ii.htm; and more briefly in Leftwing communism (1920), chapter 9: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/ works/1920/lwc/ch09.htm.