Clause four Fabianism dropped for r-r-revolutionary posturing. But despite the name change this confessional sect remains a confessional sect

Repeating past failures

Socialist Appeal’s proposed ‘Revolutionary Communist Party’ claims to offer a ‘clean break with the sects’. In fact, the proposal is a mere repetition of the method of the confessional sects, argues Mike Macnair

Last week I introduced ‘British perspectives 2024: theses on the coming British revolution’, published in Socialist Appeal’s The Communist No4. I argued that the document was characterised by “official optimism”: that is, it predicts revolutionary crisis in the short term by selecting only evidence which points in that direction. And it predicts that RCP members can, by voluntaristically putting massive effort into recruiting to the group, get from 1,400 in May 2024, to 2,000 in 2025, and to 5,000 shortly after - and so to 10,000, which would allow it to open the way to the masses under conditions of revolutionary crisis.

I argued that the prediction of open revolutionary crisis is premature, based on a one-sided view of the evidence which overreads the speed of the social dynamic and omits the real dynamic towards nationalist authoritarianism. This week I will look further at the document’s claims about the existing left, about Socialist Appeal/RCP’s growth, and about the central argument that a small group can under conditions of revolutionary crisis leap to acquire mass character.

As I argued in my first article, the case for a Stakhanovite, voluntaristic effort to recruit to the RCP from “fresh forces” among the youth rests partly on the supposed imminence of open revolutionary crisis. It also rests on the supposed existence of a “political vacuum” on the left; and, finally, on the idea that Socialist Appeal’s politics are radically different (and less opportunist) than those of “the sects”.

The supposed “political vacuum” consists, as I said last week, on the failure of the Labour left; of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain (misidentified with the party liquidated in 1991); and of “the far left sects”.

Also, as I said last week, there is a (non-dialectical) contradiction in the ‘theses’ between the claim that “The reformist politicians are increasingly exposed for what they are. Figures like Jeremy Corbyn will not be a point of reference for this generation” and the claim, not much later, that “We do not write off the reformist mass organisations, which can be transformed by events.” Why does this contradiction exist? The immediate reason is that the claim that “the reformist politicians are increasingly exposed for what they are” and similar forms of expression have been made repeatedly since the 1960s, only, on each occasion, to be falsified by a revival of ‘official lefts’ in a new form. But what lies behind this?

The category, ‘reformist’, refers to a superficial ideological form and, at that, one which was only dominant in the cold war period, so that the (contradictory) judgments are framed by 1960s boomer-think.

Going behind the ideology, the Labour Party and similar parties (purport to) represent the working class as a class in mainstream politics through careerist full-time officials and elected representatives whose authority over the ranks is protected by law and by party rules, and within the framework of institutional commitments to the nation-state and to the existing constitutional order.

The creation of such parties is driven by the same dynamic that drives the creation of trade unions, and so on. That is, that the competitive dynamics of the capitalist class, and the dependency of each capitalist on the exploitation of workers, force capitalists endlessly to attack the working class, and that the only means of self-defence available to the working class is collective action. It is this fundamentally defensive role of trade unions that leads to their being repeatedly created, recreated and revived, including under severe repression.


The same dynamic applies at the level of the state, for two reasons. The first is that states function to a considerable extent as competing firms within the world market: hence the endless talk of ‘British competitiveness’ and so on.1 The second is that if there is within the constitution no source of political input external to capital - that is, all political parties, media and the legal system are thoroughly corrupt - the competitive imperative forcing every individual capital to raise the rate of exploitation by wage-cuts, speed-up and so on will be faithfully reflected in individual capitals’ command of political representation. This is strikingly visible, for example, in the proliferation of anti-union legislation for individual industries through the English ‘long 18th century’.2

It follows that, just as the working class will logically tend to create trade unions, and so on, so the class will also logically tend to seek some form of political representation as a defensive measure. I express this point cautiously, because trade union links with one of the major middle class political parties3 was an alternative to the idea of an independent workers’ party from an early date. And this option continued in Lib-Lab-ism (workers’ representation within the Liberal Party) down to the early 20th century, and continues to this day in trade union relations with the US Democrats and with the Argentinian Peronists.

The idea of an independent workers’ party begins with Chartism in Britain and passes through Flora Tristan’s, Marx’s and Engels’, and Ferdinand Lassalle’s, versions of left Chartism, to the success of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and thence to Europe more widely, and back to ideological influence of the SPD on the small British left groups of the 1880s-90s (Social Democratic Federation, Socialist League, Independent Labour Party). The progress of the small groups in local government elections, and their agitation in the trade unions for an independent workers’ party, then produces the Labour Party as a means for the trade union tops and the Lib-Lab MPs to ‘head off’ this threat. Britain was not the only country where the non-socialist Labour Party form was adopted; but in other countries, it was necessary to convert existing socialist parties for this purpose.

This ‘trade unionist’ dynamic of the production of workers’ parties with defensive purposes requires that the state should be willing to make sufficient concessions to the working class to allow a defensive-purposes workers’ party to attract mass support. At one level, the point is elementary: Engels already argued in Origins of the family, private property and the state, on the basis of Greek and Roman history, that the state has the role of enforcing against individual members of the ruling class concessions to the lower orders, made to avoid permanent civil war.4

The more significant point is that these concessions need not be elements of movement towards socialism, or indeed make matters better: they can merely serve to prevent or slow down the blind self-interest of the ruling class making matters worse. The possibility of amelioration of the tendency of capital to make matters worse is enough to produce mass support for pretty ineffective trade unions; and it is enough to produce recurring mass support for loyalist workers’ parties after each experience of government by open capitalist parties.

The ideological forms of workers’ movement loyalism vary sharply. Reformism is one of them; explicit liberalism, including ‘liberal imperialism’ is also possible, as is ‘Christian socialism’ or ‘Islamic socialism’, simple nationalism, and ‘economism’ - the idea that the workers’ movement should focus on economic demands and ignore issues of constitutional order and of foreign affairs.


‘Reformism’, as I have just said, is merely one of the possible ideological forms of loyalism. The background is that socialism is posed to the working class by its need for collective action to defend its interests. But it is also posed to the society as a whole by the fact that liberal conceptions of a pure-market economy (Mandeville’s Fable of the bees, Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’, Walras’s equilibrium, Arrow-Debreu’s ‘dynamic stochastic general equilibrium’, and so on) are merely false in the same way as flat-earthism is false. Collective action with all its problems is necessary.

Hence the critiques, in the Communist manifesto, of ‘reactionary socialism’, whether ‘feudal’ or ‘petty-bourgeois’, or ‘German or true socialism’, all being forms of reactionary anti-capitalism; and of ‘conservative or bourgeois socialism’.

The 1920s-30s saw a reaction away from liberalism in favour of various such forms - fascism being the most notorious, but not the only, variety. The recent and current global political dynamic is towards a similar reaction away from liberal economics towards collective and state action, coupled (as before) with political authoritarianism.

The origin of the particular ideology, ‘reformism’, is in Fabianism. The Fabians took their name from Q Fabius Maximus Verrucosus ‘Cunctator’ (‘delayer’), the Roman general who adopted against the Carthaginian Hannibal what would later be called a strategy of attrition or Ermattungsstrategie, avoiding open battle and attacking Carthaginian logistics. The Fabians were advocates of ‘bourgeois socialism’ within the Liberal Party; and were ‘Fabians’ in their defence of Lib-Labism and rejection of the revolutionary (anti-constitutional) politics of the SDF and Socialist League. What makes their politics ‘reformism’ is the belief in gradual movement towards socialism through reforms.

This sort of politics was a more theorised alternative to ordinary Lib-Labism; to the ‘Possibilism’ (capital P) of Paul Brousse and others in France in the same period; or to the advocacy of coalition between the working class and small farmers, and with liberals, by Georg von Vollmar and others in the 1890s. The difference is that Fabianism offered the idea of progress towards socialism through reforms. Fabianism fed back into the German SPD by way of Eduard Bernstein and his evolution from 1896, starting with his support of what would now be called ‘humanitarian intervention’, but more elaborated in his book, The preconditions of socialism (1899).

But neither Fabianism in Britain nor Bernstein’s version in Germany were the dominant forms of workers’ movement loyalism. Bernstein was criticised by other rightists within the party for over-theorising practice, in which coalition tactics, not gradualism, was central; the Lib-Lab MPs, and hence pre-1914 Labour MPs, were mostly liberal imperialists, not Fabians. The ideology of gradualism was hardly plausible in a world where liberals actively promoted revolution against anciens régimes, as in Russia (1905), Iran (1905), Turkey (1908) and China (1911). It was still less so in the world of radical instability between 1917 and 1947.

What changed was that in 1947-48 the USA adopted the general strategy of ‘containment of communism’. This strategy entailed (among other elements) major concessions to the working class in western Europe, to enable the European capitalist regimes to appear as attractive, relative to the ‘eastern bloc’. As a part of this strategy, there was vigorous, active state promotion of Fabianism and Bernsteinism as ideologies of the loyalist workers’ parties (or loyalist wings in the workers’ parties).

As part of this activity, writers who had been associated with intelligence services and special ops at the end of World War II and in the immediate post-war period published books which presented Fabian or Bernsteinian gradualism as more dominant than it had, in fact, been. They presented an image of Bernstein as ‘repulsive but right’, with the only other real option being the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg, or of the pre-1917 Leon Trotsky, as ‘romantic but wrong’ (to invert Sellar and Yeatman on Cavaliers and Roundheads). The Bebel-Kautsky centre tendency, on this analysis, was a futile failure to decide between the two ‘real’ options; and, moreover, in the form of Bolshevism, by being ‘scientistic’, led naturally to Stalinism. Thus, for example, Carl Schorske’s history of the SPD down to 1917; thus Peter Nettl’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg; thus Leonard Schapiro and Leo Valiani.

Large parts of the far left, regrettably, swallowed whole this state ideological operation, and began to pose itself as ‘revolutionary’ in the ‘Luxemburgist’ sense, as opposed to the state-loyalists’ ‘reformism’. By doing so it condemned itself to the ineffectiveness of splintered bureaucratic-centralist sects, like Luxemburg’s and Leo Jogiches’s Social-Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. This form is - as we have seen since the 1960s - just as safe for capitalist rule as the loyalist workers’ movement is.

In this limited sense it is true that ‘reformism’ is, at least for now, over. It should be clear that the Corbyn movement was never ‘reformist’ in this sense, except insofar as the Morning Star-CPB’s Britain’s road to socialism was all along a Fabian-Bernsteinian project, and Andrew Murray, Seumas Milne and so on were reformists. The actual Corbynite mainstream did not propose a gradualist road to socialism, as the original Fabians did, but merely ‘Possibilist’ improvements to British national economics.

Reformism is marginalised: and in the UK it has been marginalised, in reality, since Rupert Murdoch’s 1994 promotion of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party made old-time Fabian Roy Hattersley into a left critic of the party leadership. It will only revive if new conditions produce a new ‘Soviet bloc’ and with it a new ‘cold war’.

But this does not mean that national- and constitutional-loyalist workers’ organisations are over and ‘exposed’. What I have been discussing at considerable length above is why capitalism as such and the capitalist state will tend over and over again to reproduce loyalist workers’ organisations: in underlying dynamics, for the same reason as the creation and maintenance of trade unions. We can also see why left wings will naturally tend to reappear in these loyalist workers’ organisations, only to be defeated, and then reappear in a different form: Stafford Cripps’s Socialist League in the 1930s, the Bevanites in the 1950s, the Bennites in the 1970s-80s, Corbynism …

Even at this level it is not clear that the current ‘official lefts’ are politically dead dogs. The reason is that the far left, by virtue of its ‘united front’ policy, actively promotes ‘official lefts’ until they are not merely defeated, but actually dead. Tony Benn, for example, spoke at the People’s Assembly conference in June 2013, 10 months before his death. Jeremy Corbyn continues to be promoted by left campaigns. For small groups, like those of the far left, to apply the united front policy, there need to be ‘official lefts’, with the result that they are promoted even where they are (as was true of the Labour left in 1994-2015) generals without armies.

Even revolutionary crisis, in which the obedience of the soldiers is called into question, does not prevent the revival of state-loyalist workers’ organisations and of left versions of them or trends within them. Witness the German revolution of 1918‑19. Witness also the Portuguese revolutionary crisis of 1974-77: at the outbreak of the revolution the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party was the dominant workers’ party, but US backing and support from the Catholic church allowed the negligible Socialist Party to grow rapidly to mass proportions. The far-left groups, splintered, remained marginal.

Far left

The RCP ‘theses’ claim that the Morning Star’s CPB has not grown, and the other far-left groups (“the sects”) have “completely failed”. I made the point last week that these claims are made without evidence and without any serious attempt to analyse the groups in question - and, in fact, against the evidence which is available about their state.

In that article, and also in November,5 I made the point that the line of the ‘theses’ on this question is a repeat of the claims made by the Healyites in launching the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973, by the Cliffites in launching the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, and by the Taaffites in launching the Socialist Party in England and Wales in 1997. The WRP destroyed itself by way of Gerry Healy’s abuse of power and his successors’ inability to rethink either perspectives or organisational conceptions. But the other groups are still with us; not collapsed; and in terms of formal positions, their papers’ ‘What we fight for’ columns are not that different from the new Communist’s equivalent. The British SWP has been continuously recruiting on an ‘open’ basis, with the hope of getting to 10,000, since the early 1970s … but is still in the low thousands in terms of dues-paying membership.

It is far from clear that Socialist Appeal/RCP’s growth is more ‘real’ than the SWP’s 6,000 ‘registered members’: The Communist remains a fortnightly, and the fund drive target for the launch is £20,000, which is the same as the target of the much smaller CPGB’s 2023 Summer Offensive.

The purposes of the fund drive also reflect the methods of the SWP: “we need to double the size of our organisation by the end of 2024, which means we need 20 new full-time staff to support this growth”. In the SWP, and in the US International Socialist Organisation, the full-timers, appointed from the centre, were a source of patronage for the central leadership and of excessive control of local initiative by the centre. Contrast Marcel Liebman’s Leninism under Lenin: “In Petrograd even, the central committee [in February 1918] possessed only two politically responsible secretaries and an office staff of four. This apparatus grew very slowly: in 1919 it still numbered only about 15 people.”6

So we have a repeated pattern, in which a group of some hundreds reaches four figures with a moment of rapid recruitment among youth, and imagines it has hit the big time and that revolutionary crisis is on the immediate agenda; it renames itself as a ‘party’ and embarks on more ‘open recruitment’ and an attitude that ‘the rest of the left is dead or dying and to be ignored’ … but the outcome is not the expected breakthrough, but merely a group of a few thousand with inflated ambitions.

This is not only a British phenomenon: across the channel, Lutte Ouvrière, the Lambertistes and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (more recently Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) have all experienced such abortive attempts to cash in on momentary popularity. Nor just a Trotskyist phenomenon, as can be seen from a series of examples in the US Maoist ‘new communist movement’ in the 1970s.7 Why this persistently reappearing mistake?

Part of the error is, in fact, a Trotsky problem: visible in his comment on the Spanish POUM, quoted in the ‘theses’:

Ten thousand, with a firm and perceptive leadership, can find the road to the masses, break them away from the influence of the Stalinists and social democrats, the charlatans and loudmouths, and assure them not just the episodic and uncertain victory of the republican troops over the fascist troops, but a total victory of the toilers over the exploiters.8

What lies behind this claim is that Trotsky before 1917 tended to deceive himself about the relative weight of Bolshevism, by underestimating it in the interests of hope in his own rival and much weaker projects (the 1912 ‘August bloc’, the wartime exile Nashe Slovo, the ‘Inter-District group of non-factional Social Democrats’ (Mezhrayontsi). In the 1930s, that error allowed him to imagine that if the Bolsheviks could leap to leadership of the masses from very small numbers, so could the 1930s Trotskyists.

Yes, the Bolsheviks only had around 20,000 members in February 1917. But this was under conditions of total illegality, where there was a routine practice of conscripting activists to send them to the trenches. And in 1912 the Bolsheviks had won the workers’ curia (class-defined electoral seats) in the tsarist duma. Behind this self-deception, in turn, was Trotsky’s lack of understanding of the party question. He made this point repeatedly against himself in the 1930s, but it is not clear that he ever really grasped it: that Bolshevism and Menshevism could acquire a mass character because they offered a political voice rather than a purely economic and strike-based conception of workers’ power, which Trotsky tended to fall back on.

This, of course, does not explain the problem affecting Maoism. But here - and among the Trotskyists, too - there is another element. It is in the first place the idea that talking to the existing left is a waste of time; and in the second, the idea that capturing the youth will allow the creation of a radically new left, uncontaminated by the errors of the ‘old left’. This idea takes us back to ‘boomer-thought’: it is the legacy of the post-1956 ‘new left’ in the US and Germany, and its global political influence. The idea of generational replacement as the solution to the problems of the left is at the end of the day a bourgeois sociologists’ and advertising agents’/publicists’ conception, which began with the boomers and is today almost reduced ad absurdum with the idea of ‘Generation Z’.

What happens to the youth after they have been hooked in by the promise of the revolution round the corner and have spent a few years selling the Workers’ Press at the factory gate, turning out to the latest demo to hand out SWP placards and party cards, recruiting new members to the Revolutionary Communist Party, or whatever the particular nostrum may be? Many will drop out of politics and/or become violent anti-leftists. Others will find a road to actual engagement with the workers’ movement. The result will be that they will either retain their far-left affiliation, but act independently of their leaders, or simply become trade union militants, ‘independent leftists’ and so on.

In actual revolutionary crisis, it turns out that small groups, however good their politics, are not able to find the road to the masses by bypassing the larger trends. We have seen this over and over again: the rising tide does not exactly lift all boats, but the existing large parties gain as much, or more than, the small groups. And the result in this situation of clinging to the project of the small group addressing the masses directly is to fail to win over forces from the existing broad workers’ vanguard. To use the analogy of Russia in 1917, to fail to promote Left Socialist-Revolutionaries and Menshevik-Internationalists, and thereby leave political leadership in the hands of the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Menshevik defencists. The result in Russia would have been the victory of Kornilov or one of the other generals and the massacre of the left - a result that has happened repeatedly in subsequent revolutionary crises.

The launch of the RCP is thus not a clean break from the ‘sects’. It merely repeats their errors.

  1. The point was already made by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha programme: “the ‘framework of the present-day national state’, for instance, the German empire, is itself, in its turn, economically ‘within the framework’ of the world market, politically ‘within the framework’ of the system of states” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm). For why, as a matter of the logic of capital, this should be necessarily true, see my series, ‘Imperialism and the state’ (Weekly Worker supplements, March 17, 24, April 7, 14, 2022).↩︎

  2. See JV Orth Combination and conspiracy: a legal history of trade unionism 1721-1906 Oxford 1991, chapters 1-4.↩︎

  3. ‘Middle class’ because ‘bourgeois’ (in the sense of ‘capitalist’) parties are those that are selected by capitalists for large-scale bribe-taking; the ranks and cadre of such parties are usually drawn from the petty-proprietor class, and in particular the intelligentsia (journos, lawyers, etc).↩︎

  4. MECW Vol 26, pp268-71.↩︎

  5. ‘A communist appeal to Socialist Appeal’ Weekly Worker November 9 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1466/a-communist-appeal-to-socialist-appeal.↩︎

  6. M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1985, pp278-79. These figures, of course, do not include the journalists, etc working on the press.↩︎

  7. M Elbaum Revolution in the air London 2002.↩︎

  8. ‘Is victory possible in Spain?’ April 23 1937, in The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) New York 1973, p263.↩︎