Grappling with the party question

Mike Macnair looks at two very different documents from two very different organisations

Two recent articles have some mildly interesting things to say about the idea and tasks of a party of the far left. The two are: ‘Why revolutionaries organise’, proposed for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s coming conference and published in Solidarity (August 29); and ‘Parliamentary action and social struggles - the experience of the Portuguese Left Bloc’ by Francisco Louçã, written in March this year, but translated and published on the International Viewpoint website (the English-language publication of the Mandelite Fourth International) on September 7.

The AWL author repeats the sterile orthodoxies of the British far left - but identifies some specific difficulties of left politics in the early 21st century. These difficulties do not seem to be unique to a ‘left’ group (the AWL) which has committed itself to campaigning for the Atlanticist and pro-EU views of the Labour right.

Louçã, writing about a much larger organisation (which has thousands of members and holds 19 seats in the Portuguese parliament) has more substantial things to say. However, his article addresses the difficulties of an organisation which was elected to give critical support to a Socialist Party government, even though in substance it is implementing the European Union’s austerity diktat.1 It also displays typical Mandelite diplomatic code-language, from which it is not easy to decipher what is really being argued - or what the other side of the argument might be.


The AWL document begins with the correct assertion that “The working class has the potential to become a great power in society, but can make that potential a reality, even on the most limited scale, only by organisation.” The explanation offered is not - as it should be - that workers are forced to organise collectively because capitalism separates them from their means of production. Instead it is that workers are affected by “relative poverty, cultural and educational restrictions, insecurity and exhausting work burdens of parcellised tasks”. All of these characteristics also affect peasants and master craftspeople (and other small businesses), whose dynamics of social struggle are very different from wage workers.

This defective explanation of workers’ need to organise is then used to explain “a bias towards the rank and file being relatively inactive and unconfident in [workers’] organisations. Control over the leading officials and parliamentarians becomes weak, even if the organisations have good democratic forms on paper ...” The officials and parliamentarians “organically gravitate towards politics of bargaining within the system”.

The solution to this problem is then proposed to be:

the creation of an organisation of the most committed and best self-educated labour-movement activists, which, drawing nourishment from all the social rebellions of the working class and its allies, small and large, builds itself into a revolutionary party capable of transforming the labour movement and thwarting those organic trends of weakening.

But how are we to know that these individuals are, indeed, “the most committed and best self-educated labour-movement activists”?

The organisation must be clear about its aim and active in promoting it, rather than hoping for it to be achieved by roundabout ways. That includes defining and polemicising about the gulf between working class socialism and all the other ideologies which have come to adopt the word “socialism”.

This still leaves very unclear what the ‘revolutionary party’ is for. The document goes on to argue, correctly, that the AWL is not such a party (put another way, would not be such a party even if it had not committed itself to scab politics), but a “political-educational campaign for a revolutionary working class party”. Still, what for?

While we have a fundamentally educational role, the AWL is not a discussion circle. We also attempt to act as a lever to catalyse, and shape, workers’ struggle: as revolutionary activists in our workplaces and unions, and within the broad labour movement around us.

We attempt to act as a ‘memory of the class’, retaining the accumulated memories of struggles won and lost, so that their lessons can be learnt and applied in our struggles today.

This conception of the party builds in syndicalism at its most fundamental level. There is to be ‘activity’ and ‘education’ - but not a struggle for a definite political programme or an intervention at the level of high politics.

In reality, of course, the AWL does attempt to make an intervention at the level of high politics. It is just that it does so in the interests of the Labour right’s commitments to the EU and of the Labour right’s commitment to US and British state policy in the Middle East.

In fact, this choice flows from the conception of the “revolutionary party” as an organisation which acts “as a ‘memory of the class’, retaining the accumulated memories of struggles” - “struggles” means trade union struggles, not struggles over foreign policy or laws. Disputes over foreign policy or laws are not seen in terms of issues affecting the state power, but merely in terms of short-term advantages for a workers’ movement “bargaining within the system”.

Just as the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party has attempted to make the issues of nukes, Middle Eastern wars and Palestine go away by making concession after concession, so the AWL has followed the logic to its ultimate conclusion and come on board with British state policy on these issues, in the delusive belief that doing so will set it free to pursue a ‘revolutionary’ (meaning, if it is to mean anything, direct-actionist) policy on economic and social issues.

With these fundamentals set, the document’s next step is to argue for the policy of unity in action and freedom of criticism, quoting Lenin; and for the importance of small organisations, quoting Trotsky (unsourced) as alleging that “in 1910 in the whole country there were a few dozen people” (and so on).

If Trotsky was not merely mistaken on this front, he must have been thinking of Lenin’s direct correspondents; otherwise, the election results in the 1912 Fourth Duma elections, in which the Bolsheviks won outright in the workers’ ‘curia’ (class constituencies) would be incomprehensible (imagine a group of “a few dozen” winning all the working class constituencies in London ...). The story of the micro-Bolshevik Party, only reaching “8,000” (this document) in February 1917 and winning the masses thereafter, is one with which Trotskyists have been consoling themselves for decades. The reality is that the Bolshevik-led ‘Prague conference’ RSDLP was already a party with mass support (under illegality) in 1912-14, being temporarily knocked back by the war and rapidly recovering in 1917.

Why does the AWL feel the need to state this myth yet again? The answer, it turns out in the second half of the document, is that it does not feel it is doing that well in current politics. The “Corbyn surge” turns out to have a “low political temperature”, and

the ideologies and political ‘teams’ that the new young Corbyn supporters, and the older people pulled back from political retirement, found to hand were Stalinist or Stalinoid politics - mediated through the Morning Star, but also through the activity of outright Stalinists in the leader’s office - and ‘NGO politics’ (the leftish NGO as a model of political activity, the career in leftish NGO offices as a model of individual activism), which easily meshes in with the Stalinist ideology.

Hence, the AWL does not expect to win mass forces from the Corbynistas. But even at the level of winning “the dozens and the hundreds” the document’s authors are dissatisfied; and the explanation they offer is that the AWL has not turned sufficiently vigorously to “the activity which is specific to an organisation working effectively to build a revolutionary party: getting our individual activists known as part of a purposeful collective with known ideas and visible collective activity; circulating and getting discussion on literature; drawing people into activities with us; organising political discussions.”

The argument now turns to the AWL’s own members:

A small organisation cannot hope to make progress towards building a revolutionary party just by having its individual members run good campaigns, or be admirable trade unionists. It can do it only by showing people around it that it has world-changing ideas, getting them to study those ideas, convincing them.

The first condition here is that the organisation’s own members are well-schooled in its ideas. (That does not exclude members disagreeing with the majority on particular policies; it does mean that those members study the majority view thoroughly and strive to formulate their own, differing, ideas in well-worked-out form). And for that we need, above all, to read books.

And, finally, the AWL needs to fight for the revival of democratic culture in the labour movement more generally.

But both these arguments are paradoxical. The ground of a party which has been offered at the outset is, precisely, the need for activism and the incarnation of the memory of ‘struggles’. So it is hardly surprising that the AWL’s members should imagine that their job is indeed to “run good campaigns, or be admirable trade unionists”.

Equally, the party has not been posed as “revolutionary” because of its opposition to the constitutional order of the UK state (or the international order); and the labour bureaucracy is criticised as tending to “gravitate towards politics of bargaining within the system” - not as upholding undemocratic institutional forms (influenced by the capitalist state’s regulatory conceptions). Indeed, the AWL is engaged in indirectly supporting the labour bureaucracy’s campaign against freedom of speech in the movement, on the ground of the supposed anti-Semitism of anti-Zionism.

So the foundations of the party concept proposed in the AWL document are a swamp, into which the practical conclusions will inevitably sink without trace.

Left Bloc

The Portuguese Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) was formed in the late 1990s by the unification of the ex-Maoist União Democrática Popular and the Mandelite Partido Socialista Revolucionário (itself a fusion, in 1978, of the Mandelite Liga Comunista Internacionalista and the Morenista Partido Revolucionário dos Trabalhadores). Francisco Louçã, the author of the IVP article, is a long-standing leader: having been general secretary of the LCI in the 1970s, and Left Bloc candidate for the Portuguese presidency in 2006, he stood down as party chair in 2012. In parliamentary elections the Left Bloc got 2.4% of the vote in 1999, 2.7% in 2002, 6.4% in 2005, 9.8% in 2009, 5.2% in 2011, and 10.2% in 2015 (slightly above the 8.3% achieved by the Communist Party-Green coalition).

Louçã’s article studies the general problems posed by the relative electoral success of the Left Bloc. He insists that its strength has been in its “institutional presence and reference”: ie, its electoral and parliamentary work. This is, he argues, because “Institutional and electoral representation is the normal form of political action in the eyes of the majority of the population.” Direct membership in associations - for example, trade unions - are much weaker (now 15% of workers); and in the anti-austerity struggles in 2011-13, “the trade unions have been stronger in organising demonstrations than in trade union practice and grassroots organisations”.

It is worth at this point pausing briefly to notice a point made by Leon Trotsky in the 1938 Transitional programme: “Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20% to 25% of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers ...” The very marked decline of trade unions since the 1980s - not just in the UK, but more generally - thus represents a return to normality after the exceptional conditions of the cold war period.

Louçã goes on to argue:

5. A popular party must seek electoral representation. It is not successful if it does not succeed in creating a political balance of power and if it does not express it through confrontations that lead to results. An alternative strategy of social struggle without representation would be little more than a justification for isolation. A socialist leftwing party fights for the majority and does not allow itself to be won over by the minority complex or by the anarchist or autonomist vision of a presumed social world outside the electoral confrontation, within which one would have to go into exile. The idea that the bourgeois state would collapse if many people abstained is inoperative and does the bourgeoisie a favour ...

Nonetheless, he draws attention to a number of problems of the Bloc’s electoral success. The most experienced activists have been drawn into the ‘institutional’ work. There is pressure here for forms of adaptation to the regime:

resignation to very limited measures in the name of maintaining the positions acquired; refusal to criticise the institutions or their management in the name of possible future agreements; the idea that politics advances in small steps; fear of public opinion, which leads to not presenting a socialist alternative, which leads to other institutional forms; desire to avoid the risk of conflict for fear of losing.

A non-obvious comment is:

8. Political zapping is another form of adaptation and not the least important. Getting used to a mode of political expression that depends on the circumstances and opportunities, or even on the agenda of the institutional protagonists or the press of the day, carries a risk, because it can dissolve the strategy in the agenda of the day. If the movement were everything and the programme were nothing, there would be no socialist policy to organise the workers’ and people’s movement.

I take it that “political zapping” here means spectacular denunciations of particular policies and politicians. If so, the point is a strong one and very applicable to the extra-parliamentary left in this country. Opposition to racism, austerity, globalisation, and so on, in and of themselves lead only to tail-ending one or another fraction of capital’s political representatives.

“The Bloc has made little progress on social representation” - its organised forces in the trade unions, etc, have not strengthened; it needs to find ways to the youth and students. There is an eerie echo here, from a more influential organisation, of common complaints of the British left.

And yet, at the end of the day, in point 12 Louçã argues:

the success of this electoral option does not demonstrate that representation is a sufficient condition for socialist politics. Designed as an instrument to accumulate forces, it is useful. Conceived as a form of conditioning and loss of critical sense and social alternative, it fails. The left only exists through social protagonism, through conflict or strategic intervention in class struggle. In other words, it needs to be part of the class movement. This is how it always measures its strengths.

This seems to come back to the same foundational idea as that in the AWL’s document - it is the (extra-parliamentary) “intervention in class struggle” which is the ‘real point’ of the party.

The explanation is probably the impasse into which the Bloc has got itself by giving critical support to the Socialist Party’s minority government. The Bloc has a programme, but no minimum programme nor understanding of what such a thing is - the minimum conditions for participating in government. It has marketed itself as a force to the left of the ‘official’ Communist Party, and has a much smaller membership - as of 2016 the PCP had 54,000 members, while the Bloc in 2009 had under 7,000. In this context, to be, in effect, in coalition with a government which is managing austerity (even if it is mitigating it) necessarily weakens both the Bloc and the plausibility of its electoral project as such.

What’s it for?

Back to the beginning. What is the point of a workers’ political party? Karl Marx had something to say about this, quite late in his life and following on the debates with the Bakuninist opponents of working class political action. In an 1871 letter to Friedrich Bolte2 he wrote:

The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc, law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement - that is to say a movement of the class - with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power - ie, the political power of the ruling classes - it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs Gladstone and co are bringing off in England even up to the present time.3

To paraphrase: workers’ political action is action with the object of winning workers’ interests in a general form - that is, in particular, legislation, such as for a maximum working day, factory and other safety legislation, and so on.

A revolutionary workers’ party is ‘revolutionary’ not because of a particular means chosen, but because its programme has at its core the overthrow of the constitutional order under which the capitalist class rules, the conquest of power by the working class - the working class taking over and holding the middle classes in subordination (and, following on from that, beginning the socialist reconstruction of society).

It is, in fact, this character of being founded on a political programme which makes possible the line Lenin drew in 1906 (quoted in the AWL document) that “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free ... not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings [but] the party’s political action must be united …”4

If the party is founded (as the AWL claims to be) not on a definite written programme, but on “the whole record of Trotskyist anti-Stalinism and anti-capitalism” and its purpose is not to fight for a definite platform, but “to act as a ‘memory of the class’, retaining the accumulated memories of struggles won and lost, so that their lessons can be learnt and applied”, such a distinction simply fails to work in practice. This failure is, in fact, “the whole record” of the Matgamna tendency’s failed fusions and splits between 1976 and the recent past.

From this point of view the AWL document comes nowhere near understanding what the point of a workers’ (or revolutionary workers’) party is. Louçã is a lot closer to this understanding. But the real core of the idea remains muddled, and there seems to be a reversion at the end of the text to the routine, modern far-left ‘anti-parliamentary cretinism’.

This may be an understandable response to the Left Bloc’s present difficult situation - but not one which leads anywhere.



1. See, for example, C Príncipe, ‘The Portuguese Myth’ Jacobin June 2018.

2. Marx to Friedrich Bolte, November 23 1871: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_11_23.htm. The bulk of the letter is an outline and critique of the ideas of the Proudhonists, Lassalleans and Bakuninists.

3. That is, Gladstone and the Liberal leadership were drawing the trade unions in behind the Liberal Party by promises of legalising them and strike action - and by forms of agitation about the Tories as a threat.

4. ‘Freedom to criticise and unity of action’: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/may/20c.htm.