Working class alone has an interest in liberating the whole of humanity

High politics and the working class

Neil Faulkner and Martin Thomas falsify the party question, albeit in different ways, argues Mike Macnair

Back on July 11, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Red Flag group (formerly Workers Power) and the Mutiny group of Neil Faulkner and others (a split from John Rees and co’s Counterfire split from the Socialist Workers Party) held an online forum on far-left unity.

In early August Neil Faulkner wrote on the Mutiny website a series polemicising against the views of his interlocutors at this meeting - especially Red Flag, it seems. He opposes the adoption of a definite political platform (programme) as the basis of an organisation, claiming this is inherently sectarian and opposed to the basics of Marx’s and Lenin’s ideas. The series expresses itself as history and theory, if of a ‘great men’ variety: ‘Marx’s theory of the party’ (August 1), ‘Lenin’s theory of the party’ (August 7) and ‘Trotsky’s theory of the party’ (August 11).

The AWL’s Martin Thomas responded on August 23 to this series; and there was then a not very productive, but perhaps slightly illuminating, exchange of emails between Thomas and Faulkner, which the AWL published (with Faulkner’s consent), as a comment on the Thomas piece, on August 26.1 Faulkner complains:

I think your piece shifts the terrain too much, moving it onto a detailed argument about the early 1920s, for example, instead of engaging with the substantive argument, which is about drawing on the Marxist tradition to help us in the task of creating a mass revolutionary party today.

The problem is that Faulkner’s original series is so seriously inaccurate - both in its ‘great men’ narrative and in its silences - that it cannot be properly described as “drawing on the Marxist tradition to help us in the task of creating a mass revolutionary party today”. It is merely drawing on the Cliffite tradition, but rejecting ‘democratic centralism’.

Thomas’s response has some strengths. But a statement early on in his piece illustrates that he, too, is trapped in an inability to think critically about the past of his own tendency. He comments:

The forerunners of AWL have brought off three fusions in our time - one in fact with forerunners of Red Flag - and each one depended on lots of preliminary debate and discussion on differences with the people we were fusing with.

To say that the AWL have “brought off” three fusions is more than a little euphemistic. Rather, at least two of these three show bad-faith raiding operations - against Workers Power in 1975-76 and against the Workers Socialist League of Alan Thornett and others in 1981-84. The Matgamnaite Workers’ Fight in the first case, International Communist League in the second, in both cases persuaded their ‘partners’ to give up their own apparatus and press in favour of a ‘fused’ apparatus and press, which remained controlled by the apparatus core of the Matgamna group - and then embarked on salami operations, using provocations and factitious disciplinary charges, to get rid of segments of their former ‘partners’, until, finally, the former leaders could be disposed of.

The record of dishonest use of apparatus control was also displayed in the supposedly broad-front Labour left Socialist Organiser newspaper - created in 1978 and turned into a Matgamnaite paper in around 1980. Ian Birchall may well be right to assess the tendency’s participation in the International Socialists in the early 1970s as an analogous “raiding entry”.2 The background of bad-faith raiding operations by the Matgamna group is a political inheritance from the activities of US Trotskyist leader James P Cannon in raiding/wrecking operations against the Workers Party of the United States in 1934-35 and against the Socialist Party of America in 1936-37; Matgamna identified politically with Cannon on the organisation question.

The Matgamna tendency/AWL thus has a really serious problem of a long record of bad-faith raiding operations in fusions to account for - not only for themselves, but also for their attachment to Cannon on the ‘party question’. I should flag up that the problem is not the Matgamnaites fighting sharply for their political views in fused organisations: it is the combination of understating disagreement before fusion, with sharp turns to aggression and procedural manipulations after.

Faulkner claims that he is “drawing on the Marxist tradition” (emphasis added) and that

I don’t want to be ‘new or original’; I want to draw upon the existing Marxist tradition and apply it to the present. Marxism can be thought of as the distilled experience of some 200 years of class struggle: the concentrated essence of working class history.

He claims he is “repeating lessons that seem to have been forgotten”.

This makes it necessary to follow his twists and turns through Marx-Lenin-Trotsky before moving on to Thomas. Following the trail will, regrettably, take more than one article.

Faulkner’s Marx

Faulkner begins with the claim that Marx and Engels “were directly involved in two attempts to build a revolutionary party: the Communist League in 1847-52, and the First International in 1864-72”. This claim is seriously inaccurate, because it picks up only the best-known peaks of the political activity of the Marx-Engels ‘firm’. Much more clarity can be obtained, from a perspective close to Faulkner’s, in Hal Draper’s five-volume Karl Marx’s theory of revolution, which uses the full range of the writings and correspondence in the Collected works.

Even if we are to disregard their, perhaps ‘subterranean’, political involvements in the 1850s, it is a bad mistake to disregard their correspondence and interventions in connection with the developing German workers’ movement, which ran alongside the First International period and continued right down to Engels’ death in 1895. The 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme and the related correspondence goes missing - even though this can be and has been used by people who have a broadly Cliffite perspective, like Faulkner’s, to support their approaches. Equally, Marx’s role in drafting the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier (France) is absent.

The ‘great men’ form of history is more or less instantly displayed by the account of the Communist manifesto. The antecedents of the Manifesto and of the Communist League are wholly missing: and, in particular, missing is the fact that this trend emerged as one which imitated and built on the politics of the left wing of the Chartist movement, attempting to apply this Anglo-American working class politics in the continental European context. The link to Chartism is transparent in the July 17 1846 Address of the German Democratic Communists of Brussels to Mr Feargus O’Connor, congratulating O’Connor on his election to parliament, and saying:

The contending parties have their respective battle cries forced upon them by their interests and mutual position: the middle class - “extension of commerce by any means whatsoever, and a ministry of Lancashire cotton-lords to carry this out”; the working class - “a democratic reconstruction of the constitution upon the basis of the People’s Charter”, by which the working class will become the ruling class of England.3

The background to the League and the Manifesto in left Chartist politics has been more elaborately discussed, on the basis of full use of the Chartist and related press, by Salvo Mastellone in his 2003 Mazzini and Marx.4

Chartism had invented the new idea of a workers’ political movement, founded on a short summary statement of principles with the six points of the People’s Charter (1838):

The organisational form of the movement remained that of the existing Whig and Tory parties - loosely associated local clubs and groups.

The connection is fundamental to understanding comrade Faulkner’s Manifesto proof-text for ‘non-sectarianism’:

In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

This quotation is torn from its context by comrade Faulkner (as by many British left advocates of broad-frontism). The rest of the passage needs to be quoted:

The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:

(1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole [der Gesamtbewegung: that is, here, the whole historical process].

The communists, therefore, are, on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country - that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement [den Gang und die allgemeinen Resultate der proletarischen Bewegung - again displaying the point that “movement” here means the historical process, not the momentary aggregate of the existing organisations - “this great movement of ours”].

The immediate aim of the communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

Once the whole passage has been quoted, it should be apparent that it is on its face internally contradictory. The communists “do not form a separate party”; yet, on the other hand, the communists “are distinguished from the other working class parties ...” Moreover, the Manifesto is precisely the manifesto commissioned and adopted by the Communist League (in modern terms a distinct party) and section 3, ‘Socialist and communist literature’, is characterised by an excoriating criticism of much of what existed as a socialist movement at the time.

Section 4 of the Manifesto, ‘Position of the communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties’, begins with the statement that “Section 2 has made clear the relations of the communists to the existing working class parties, such as the Chartists in England and the agrarian reformers [National Reform Movement] in America.” These were closely connected movements.5 No other party is characterised as an “existing working class party”, not even the Réformistes or ‘Social Democrats’ around Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc in France - a group to which the Manifesto gives partial critical support. The “existing working class parties” means merely the Chartists in England and their US counterparts.

With this, the meaning of the contradiction in section 2 becomes clear. The communists do not form a party opposed to (gegenüber in the German) any actual attempt to organise the working class to fight for political action - general laws and constitutional changes - in workers’ (perceived) independent class interests, however weak the politics.6 On the contrary, they seek to join and build such attempts. They do organise within, but in a manner not dependent on, these movements, with their own manifesto, membership, if possible press and organisational forms.

They do not take the same attitude to utopian socialist, statist socialist, etc movements, which do not attempt to organise the working class to fight politically for its independent class interests: even if they give partial critical support, as in the case of the Réformistes, they do form a party gegenüber these parties.

From the Manifesto, comrade Faulkner leaps over the March 1848 Demands of the Communist Party in Germany7 - a plain summary political platform, of the sort which appears towards the end of the Manifesto and which was to reappear in the Eisenach (1869), Gotha (1875) and Erfurt (1891) programmes of the proto-SPD, the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, and so on. He jumps, instead, to the March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League - a text beloved of Trotskyists for its use of the phrase, “permanent revolution”.8 Here, it is presumably preferred not for this usage, but because it does not have much of a political platform, in contrast to the Demands.

Faulkner strangely characterises this text as showing “Marx and Engels’ vision of the party as a federation of local workers’ groups”. The proof-texts for this claim are “the creation of an independent organisation of the workers’ party, both secret and open, alongside the official democrats”, and:

If the workers are to be able to forcibly oppose the democratic petty bourgeoisie, it is essential above all for them to be independently organised and centralised in clubs. At the soonest possible moment after the overthrow of the present governments, the Central Committee will come to Germany and will immediately convene a congress, submitting to it all the necessary proposals for the centralisation of the workers’ clubs under a directorate established at the movement’s centre of operations. The speedy organisation of at least provincial connections between the workers’ clubs is one of the prime requirements for the strengthening and development of the workers’ party.

Neither of these passages advocates a federation of workers’ organisations, but rather their centralisation; and the text actually contains a violent polemic against federalism in the state (partially self-criticised by Engels in 1885).


The next leap takes us to the formation of the First International. Again the immediate antecedents are missing. In this case, it is workers’ activities in political solidarity with the north in the American Civil War in 1862-63 (against the British state’s aspirations to intervene on the side of the Confederacy) which set up the conditions for launching a solidarity campaign in support of the 1863 January Uprising in Poland - which in turn mutated into the First International. The famous 1864 preamble to the International’s rules, drafted by Marx, is absent - and so is the extensive activity of the International in discussing working class policy on a series of issues.9

Instead, Faulkner gives a partial quotation from a letter from Marx to Friedrich Bolte in New York (November 11 1871). I have quoted this text myself on more than one occasion, to illustrate the difference between the Marx-Engels conception of politics, on the one hand, and, on the other, the common far-left conception, in which strikes and direct action flow directly into the struggle for power without previous engagement with constitutional and electoral ‘high politics’ under capitalism. Faulkner uses it, bizarrely, to attribute to Marx the idea of “a strong sense that proletarian revolution would be the more or less inevitable outcome of the class struggle in the workplaces”.

Faulkner’s interpretation here is bizarre, because the text quoted is a note appended to a letter, which is about the recent splits in the First International, reflecting disagreement in the movement about workers’ political action (which the Bakuninists and Proudhonists opposed, on grounds not dissimilar to modern far-left objections to ‘parliamentarism’ and ‘electoralism’). And Faulkner omits the third paragraph of the note, which makes this point clear:

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.10

The Brexit business is a striking current example of this phenomenon. The absence of a clear pole of class-political independence has allowed the capitalists’ political parties to enlist the working class on one side or another of liberal or nationalist camps: “a plaything in their hands” indeed.

Faulkner now jumps from 1871 to the late 1880s, and Engels’ comments on the Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League (but not, notably, his comments on the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s11). This is a somewhat more complicated issue, and there is a new book out by Seamus Flaherty on Henry Hyndman, William Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax and Marx’s and Engels’s relations with them,12 which I intend to review in the near future, so I will not discuss it in depth here. Faulkner’s discussion is merely a pair of ‘proof-texts’ for ‘sectarianism’ as isolation from the mass movement (leaving out of account Marx’s and Engels’s other objections to the SDF and SL).

More directly relevant, Faulkner’s leap, missing Marx’s and Engels’ relations to the German workers’ movement, here jumps over the 1869 formation of the ‘Eisenacher’ Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (SDAP); the 1875 Gotha unification of the SDAP and the ‘Lassallean’ Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiterverein (ADAV) to form the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD), and the snowball effect which resulted from that fusion: it turned what had been two small socialist groups into a mass workers’ party - banned in 1878, but emerging from illegality as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) in 1890. Since - as Faulkner himself says in his second part, and as Lars T Lih has demonstrated - the SPD was the basis of Lenin’s party conception, this is a glaring omission, which deserves separate treatment.


Finally, Faulkner adds a little subhead: ‘What about the oppressed?’ There will be a similar subhead in part 2, on Lenin. In the section in the ‘Marx’ part, we get a little discussion of oppression (principally referring to race and migration issues) as causing divisions in the workers’ movement; and reference to Engels’ Origins of the family. All true.

From this, however, Faulkner concludes that “several principles of revolutionary organisation worked out by the founders of Marxism remained inviolable …” - and summarises these in six bullet points. Bullets 1 and 2 are Marxist enough: No1 is: “The working class is the first exploited class in history with a general interest in the emancipation of humanity as a whole”, which is the underlying argument for a workers’ party. No2 is: “The emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class” - which is correct but anodyne, for the reasons given by Marx in the early Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the state: democracy is the “resolved mystery of all constitutions”, since nobody can be a king, president or leader without people who are willing to follow them. Hence a ‘labour dictator’ could only achieve anything with mass working class support … Bullet 5 is one of those ‘motherhood and apple pie’ formulations: “The revolutionary party must have (1) internationalism, (2) collective class interest, and (3) solidarity with the oppressed as inviolable principles.”

But in three of the bullet points he moves away from the fundamental Marxist idea of a class party by including with it the category of “the oppressed”:

(No3) The revolutionary party must be an independent party of the working class and the oppressed.

(No4) The revolutionary party must be rooted in the struggles of the working class and the oppressed.

(No6) The revolutionary party should be an organisation of the most class-conscious workers and oppressed people: that is, a federation of rank-and-file activists and local working class and oppressed groups.

Question: is it really true that a black police inspector who was stopped by police when driving while off-duty, or a sexually harassed senior woman manager,13 is an essential part of a workers’ party? Consider, moreover, the case of the government officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, targeted for sanctions and assassination by the US government, and in that sense clearly oppressed in the interests of imperialism - but also themselves oppressors, very clearly, of Iran’s workers. The problem is that “the oppressed” is a large and vague category; and a party “of the working class and the oppressed” amounts to the abandonment of the project of a workers’ party as such in favour of one of the various forms of inter-class party.

And why (No6) “a federation of rank-and-file activists and local working class and oppressed groups”? Firstly, is this body to have no apparatus (in which case, some informal and unaccountable equivalent would necessarily arise)? Is it to commit to standing no candidates in parliamentary, local or trade union elections (in which case it is to commit to being the tail of whoever actually does hold elected office)?

And why a federation? We can certainly see why the Proudhonists were keen on federalism in the First International; this was a fundamental aspect of Proudhon’s politics.14 Engels in an 1885 note on the 1850 Address criticising the anti-federalist arguments in that text (about the hoped-for united German state) remarked:

... no more than local and provincial self-government is in contradiction to political, national centralisation, is it [local self-government] necessarily bound up with that narrow-minded cantonal or communal self-seeking, which strikes us as so repulsive in Switzerland, and which all the south German federal republicans wanted to make the rule in Germany in 1849.

Formal federalism, as opposed to a customary regime of local self-government with a strong central power, actually entails the sovereignty of whoever is the body capable of adjudicating claims as to the boundaries of the federal and local powers. In the USA, the European Union and elsewhere, it is a vehicle for the dictatorship of capital through the judicial power and counter-majoritarian arrangements. In the British labour movement, the federal principle is routinely used by the bureaucracy to immunise itself against criticism from outside its ‘own’ organisations as ‘interference’, while it maintains a bureaucratic tyranny within them. So, too, the Taaffeites of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

Forget the bullet points, then, except 1 and 2. Add to those a number 3, from the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier: “That the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race” - or, it may be said, any of the other “distinctions”.

And add a substitute bullet No4, from the same source:

That this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party;

That such an organisation must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation.

This claim was already present in the 1846 Address to O’Connor and the Communist Manifesto, but is missing from Faulkner’s narrative. The case for political action of the proletariat - common action at the level of ‘high politics’ - takes a wide variety of concrete forms in the political practice of Marx, Engels and their co-thinkers, but it is the persistent thread which links all these practices together. It is this perspective which Marx and Engels inherited from left Chartism, and which split the ‘Marxists’ from the ‘Bakuninists’ in 1870-71. It is the class intervention at the level of ‘high politics’ which is the point of a party, as opposed to a strike committee, a trade union or a cooperative.

In his concluding passage, besides the six bullet-points discussed above, Faulkner argued:

History would expose weaknesses in Marx’s and Engels’ conception of the revolutionary party. They overestimated the degree to which class-consciousness would arise organically and spontaneously out of the class struggle. They seem to have assumed that bourgeois ideology would prove too brittle to withstand the proletarian surge, as workers organised, mobilised and fought back. They were unable to anticipate the degree to which a conservative labour bureaucracy would become capable of smothering rank-and-file struggle.

We have already seen reasons to reject this argument: Marx’s and Engels’ whole political conduct is inconsistent with them holding the idea of an ‘organic and spontaneous’ development out of the class struggle without conscious political choices and disputes.

The other side of this coin is that the development of labour bureaucracy as a conservative force in the movement is not something which happened after Marx’s and Engels’ times. They may have misdiagnosed the phenomenon of ‘moderate’ leadership of trade unions, but they were not unfamiliar with it - after the considerable caution of union leaders in the 1850s, their abandonment of the International after the Commune and Marx’s scandalous defence of it, and the persistence of Lib-Labism (trade union leaders’ commitment to the Liberal Party) through the 1880s and down to Engels’ death in 1895. And they could also see from the time of the SPD the development of party bureaucracy. Witness, merely for example, Engels writing to Kautsky in 1891 about the furore over the publication of the Critique of the Gotha programme:

It is also imperative that the chaps should at last throw off the habit of handling the party officials - their servants - with kid gloves and kow-towing to them as infallible bureaucrats, instead of confronting them critically.15

“They were unable to anticipate” in Faulkner’s account is yet more of the ‘cult of personality’ or ‘great men’ theory of history stuff.

German model

The German model of workers’ party organisation begins in Marx’s and Engels’ time, and stands between their approach and that of the Russian Social Democracy, which comrade Faulkner calls “Lenin’s”. But it is not Marx’s or Engels’ model, but that of the German lefts who were broadly part of the same trend, of arguing for working class organisation for political action: Ferdinand Lassalle and his co-thinkers; Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel and their co-thinkers.

I have written at somewhat more length about the ‘programme’ aspect of this history in 2013, and about the SPD roots of ‘democratic centralism’ in 2015 and 2019, and I do not propose to repeat all the detail of what I said there.16 It is, however, necessary to repeat some of the history, because comrade Faulkner’s articles illustrate the very widespread ‘new left’ ignorance (partly wilful) of it.

It is also a sharp illustration of the problems of thinking these issues through ‘great men’ histories or cults of the personalities of Marx, Engels, Lenin, as comrade Faulkner does; because some aspects of the actions the Germans took against Marx’s and Engels’ advice turned out to be massively more successful in promoting working class consciousness and class organisation than Marx’s and Engels’ own involvement in organising activities.

This particular history begins with the General Association of German Workers (ADAV), initiated by Ferdinand Lassalle’s in response to a workers’ congress in 1863. Lassalle was a ‘48er’ and a correspondent of Marx, though the relationship was an edgy one. The ADAV was not a Chartist or 1848-style communist party committed to political democracy. When founded, it adopted as its platform a 40-page article by Lassalle, the ‘Open Letter’.17 In spite of its length, this document proposed the idea of a workers’ party independent of the Liberals, on the basis of two demands only: universal suffrage and state-supported producer cooperatives. The rest of the text was theoretical argument.

As an organisation the ADAV operated what at some stage Lassalleans may have called “democratic centralism”.18 If so, by this they meant that a congress elected (“democratic”) a leader (Lassalle, then later Schweitzer after Lassalle was killed in a duel in 1864), and the leader had dictatorial powers (“centralism”) over the party organisation - and equally over the trade unions, which were later founded in association with the party organisation. In addition, Lassalle, and after him Schweitzer, were happy to say that the working class could ally with the Bismarck government and with the Prussian monarchists against the Liberals, because the Liberals represent the capitalist class, while the monarchists were prepared to make social concessions to the working class. The ADAV was also kleindeutsch (‘small German’), supporting the unification of Germany without Austria, under Prussian leadership.

The centralism and the nationalism had a distinct consequence: the ADAV was a ‘nationwide’ membership organisation, which one could join as an individual, unlike the Chartist-style and old bourgeois party-style federations of clubs and societies.

The second German workers’ party to develop in the 1860s was what became in 1869 the Eisenach party. This started with Wilhelm Liebknecht attempting to organise an opposition within the Lassallean ADAV in Berlin; but Bismarck, hearing of this, had Liebknecht deported from Prussia to Saxony. Liebknecht went into a Saxon Liberal party called the Volkspartei (People’s Party), and organised a left tendency within it, in the process winning August Bebel. In 1869 this tendency fused with a split from the ADAV, and created the Social Democratic Workers Party or ‘Eisenach party’. This organisation was based on a clear platform, the Eisenach programme, which has a set of six general principles and then a set of 10 specific demands.19

It is important to understand that the Eisenach programme has within itself most of the faults which Marx criticises in the Gotha programme. At the same time, however, the concept of the Eisenach programme is the same concept as that of the Charter, or the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany.

It is a return in that sense from the First International idea - a general association without a definite programme, but a framework within which the working class can discuss what its policy ought to be - to the Chartist and Manifesto idea of a workers’ political movement founded on a definite short, clear political platform. It was also, like the ADAV, a membership organisation.

Between 1869 and 1875 the main political event in Europe was the Franco-Prussian war. Bebel and Liebknecht, who had been elected to the parliament of the north German confederation as Eisenach party MPs, refused, against the advice of Marx and Engels, to vote for credits for the Prussian war effort. The ADAV in contrast gave clear support for the Prussian war effort. The decision of Bebel and Liebknecht was retrospectively validated by the military victories of the Prussians and also by the fact that the Prussians turned out to be annexationist, seizing Alsace-Lorraine. In retrospect Bebel and Liebknecht were seen to have made an enormous stand on principle against Prussian military aggression.

At the same time, the organisers of trade unions under the framework of the ADAV became increasingly angry and frustrated by the system under which Schweitzer as the elected leader was simultaneously the president of every trade union associated with the ADAV. And the people in the localities were angry and frustrated by the fact that Schweitzer had the right to dissolve local parties, intervene in them, appoint the organisers of the local parties, and so on.

In contrast, the Eisenachers regarded the effective autonomy of the branches, trade unions and so on as being a fundamental part of their political conception - that the working class needs political democracy; and that implied that the working class requires democracy in its own movement as well, and needs the opportunity for creativity in the localities, in the branches and so on. This commitment is present very explicitly in the Eisenach programme.

The result of these developments was that in the early 1870s there were not only further splits from the Lassalleans towards the Eisenachers, but also a pressure for unification of the two organisations. At Gotha in 1875 the two organisations unified, on the basis of the Gotha programme.20

Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme, the covering note he wrote on it and Engels’ equivalent letters took the view that the programme’s non-Marxist content outweighed the benefits of unification. But in spite of the Great-Prussian nationalism and statism of the Lassalleans, they were still partisans of a workers’ party as such, as opposed to a cross-class coalition party, and a party which stood for workers’ political action through the struggle for universal suffrage - not a cooperativist movement like the Proudhonists or anti-parliamentary mass-action movement like the Bakuninists. This was not a repeat of the First International as a ‘broad front’ with a minimalist platform, but a unification of groups which were politically close to each other, on the basis of a long-term platform.

Contrary to Marx’s and Engels’ expectations, the unification of the Eisenach party and the ADAV created a snowball effect. By unifying the German socialist groups, which were not that large (about 12,000 in the ADAV and about 7,000 Eisenachers), within very few years the united party had hundreds of thousands of members.

This snowball effect of unification is equally true of the history of the Second International in general. The 1889 Hainfeld programme of the Austrian social democracy was a fusion programme. The Italian Socialist Party originated out of a fusion of a number of different groups. The French Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) originated as a fusion of a number of different groups. The RSDLP originated as a fusion of a number of different groups. The creation of a unified organisation creates a snowball effect and enables the organisation to go massively further forward than the disunited forces which existed beforehand.

We have seen this phenomenon again more recently - albeit at the end of the day ending in failure - in the Brazilian Workers Party (PT); in Rifondazione Comunista’s opening up to forces to its left; in the Scottish Socialist Party; or lasting longer in the Left Bloc in Portugal, in the Red-Green alliance in Denmark. Unification of relatively small forces of socialists in itself creates a different dynamic.

If we ask ourselves why that should be, the answer is actually perfectly obvious. The working class as a class has a profound interest in united action in spite of political differences. Because without the framework for united action among people who have political differences, you cannot have a strike, you cannot have trade unions, you cannot have credit unions, you cannot have cooperatives. The working class objectively needs unity. Hence, insofar as the left sets itself up against unity in favour of purity, it takes us back to the times before Chartism, and we are forced to give all the competing tendencies the names of their theoretical leaders: just from Britain, the Cliffites, the Mandelites, the Healyites, the Matgammnaites, etc, like the Paineites, Spenceans, Owenites, and so on.

One further step. The rapid growth of the SAP led in 1878 to the introduction of emergency legislation against it - the Gesetz gegen die gemeingefährlichen Bestrebungen der Sozialdemokratie or ‘Anti-Socialist Laws’ - introduced as temporary measures, but then extended successively until 1890. These prohibited local and national Social Democratic organisation - but did not prohibit individual Social Democrats from standing for election to the Reichstag. The Social Democrats seized the opportunity, using the Reichstag as a tribunal to speak out on workers’ issues and to indict the policy of successive Reich and Land (province) governments; they combined this with the publication of an illegal party press outside Germany, which was then circulated - and links maintained with local groups - through a body of Vertrauensmänner (‘trusted men’). At this point we come very close to the organisational conceptions of Iskra and of Lenin’s What is to be done?

The real lessons, then, of the ‘pre-Lenin’ history of the organisation question are nearly the opposite of those drawn by Faulkner. The point of the party is the intervention of the working class at the level of high politics. Attention to the various forms of oppression is a part of this attention to high politics; not a ground for a “party of the working class and the oppressed”. The gaps in Faulkner’s account produce misunderstandings: that which stands where Chartism should be turns the Communist manifesto into an argument for the sort of politics against which Marx and Engels were arguing, as is true also of the use of the 1850 Address and the gap where most of what happened in the First International should be.

The gap where the initiatives of the Germans in the 1860s-90s should be is a matter of Faulkner’s ‘great men’ or personality-cult method of writing history; it also massively adversely affects Faulkner’s ability to understand Lenin’s arguments - to which we will have to return in the next article in this series.


  1. workersliberty.org/comment/34561#comment-34561. (I have to say that it is really hard to find old stuff on the AWL’s website at the moment; the search engine seems not to work).↩︎

  2. Various interventions. Contrary to comrade Birchall, however, the long-term price of banning ‘permanent factions’ as a way of dealing with such operations greatly outweighs the disruption costs of dishonest factions.↩︎

  3. MECW Vol 6, p59 (originally from The Northern Star No454, July 25 1846).↩︎

  4. S Mastellone Mazzini and Marx: thoughts upon democracy in Europe Westport 2003.↩︎

  5. On the link, see the review by Howard B Rock of JL Bronstein’s Land reform and working class experience in Britain and the United States, 1800-1862 (1999): h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=202956170085; and on the Communist League’s attitude to it, K Marx et al, ‘Circular against Kriege’, section 2 (1846): marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1846/05/11.htm.↩︎

  6. And the politics of the National Reform Movement in the US were substantially weaker than those of British left Chartism.↩︎

  7. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/03/24.htm.↩︎

  8. .marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.htm.↩︎

  9. Various documents are available on MIA at marxists.org/history/international/iwma/index.htm.↩︎

  10. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_11_23.htm. The ‘September revolution’ was the first stage of the fall of the regime of Louis Bonaparte in September 1870, in which the bourgeoisie captured the spoils of mass movements. Liberal leader and prime minister WE Gladstone was at the date of this letter busily ‘talking left’ against the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine: D Schreuder, ‘Gladstone as “troublemaker”: Liberal foreign policy and the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, 1870-1871’ Journal of British Studies Vol 17, pp106-135 (1978). The Liberal Party had also appealed to the upper sections of the working class by attempting to legalise trade unions with the Trade Union Act 1871, while taking away with the other hand by criminalising picketing and reducing “sentimental” poor relief.↩︎

  11. Eg, Engels to Sorge, November 10 1894 (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/letters/94_11_10.htm): “The Independent Labour Party is extremely indefinite in its tactics, and its leader, Keir Hardie, is a super-cunning Scot, whose demagogic tricks are not to be trusted for a minute.”↩︎

  12. S Flaherty Marx, Engels and modern British socialism London 2020.↩︎

  13. Police inspector: The Guardian August 18 2020; and cf T Vega, ‘For affluent blacks, wealth doesn’t stop racial profiling’ CNN, July 14 2016 (money.cnn.com/2016/07/14/news/economy/wealthy-blacks-racial-profiling/index.html); woman managers: O Folke, J Rickne, S Tanaka and Y Tateishi, ‘Sexual harassment of women leaders’ Daedalus Vol 149, pp 180-97 (2020): amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/Daedalus_Wi20_12_Folke%20Rickne%20Tanaka%20Tateishi.pdf.↩︎

  14. Cf my review of Iain McKay’s 2011 Property is theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon anthology: ‘No guide to revolution’ Weekly Worker July 19 2012.↩︎

  15. Engels to Kautsky February 21 1891: MECW Vol 49, p131. There are several other related comments in this correspondence.↩︎

  16. ‘Programme: lessons of Erfurt’ Weekly Worker September 5 2013; ‘Origins of democratic centralism’, November 5 2015 (introducing Ben Lewis’s translation of Karl Kautsky’s article, ‘Constituency and party’); ‘Reclaiming democratic centralism’, May 23 2019.↩︎

  17. platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/lassalle_openletter1863.pdf. The basis was reduced to four points in 1867, but retained as point 4 “Lösung der sozialen Frage durch freie Arbeiter-Assoziation mit Staatshilfe nach den Prinzipien Lassalles”: ie, that the cult of the personality of the dead Lassalle was incorporated in the party platform. W Treue Deutsche Parte programme 1861-1961 Gleichen 1961, pp58-59. This remained the platform of the ADAV until the Gotha fusion.↩︎

  18. ‘May have’ for reasons given in my ‘Reclaiming democratic centralism’: ie, that the citation on which the 1960s author who originally made this claim about the Lassalleans relied turns out not to lead to a traceable primary source.↩︎

  19. archive.org/stream/EisenachProgram/725_socDemWorkersParty_230_djvu.txt.↩︎

  20. archive.org/stream/GothaProgramme/726_socWrkrsParty_gothaProgram_231_djvu.txt.↩︎