What kind of new party do we need?

There is a broad consensus on the left outside Labour that a new party of our class is needed. But what sort of politics should it have? Here, Dave Parks - an activist in the Socialist Alliance until its dissolution earlier this year - warns against projecting the need for a revolutionary party as an ultimatum to the movement

Only a socialist revolution - carried out by the working class, organised as a class - can put an end to capitalism and make the building of socialism a possibility. A revolutionary party is in that sense essential. However, what is also essential is that such a revolutionary party commands support from the majority of the working class. I find it interesting in the context of this discussion to refer back to the writings on the united front from the early Comintern. Probably the clearest example of this writing was by Trotsky in 1922 (see www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1924/ffyci-2/08.htm). The tactics outlined are aimed at mass communist parties, which at that stage only command support from a significant minority of the working class, with the majority still supporting reformist mass workers' parties. Of course, the problem today is that we have neither mass revolutionary parties nor mass reformist ones. The process of degeneration of the social democratic parties was greatly accelerated by the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the eastern bloc - resulting in the situation today where the once reformist workers' parties only have a remote historical relationship to social democracy in most countries. The parties of social democracy have gone a long way down the road of transforming themselves from bourgeois workers' parties to plain bourgeois parties - indeed I would argue that they are now plain and simple bourgeois parties (some comrades may disagree with me on that, but I think they would agree that they are in the process of that transformation). Stalinism too has completely collapsed. I am asked what kind of workers' party I would like to see. The simplistic answer to that is a mass revolutionary party which commands majority support in the working class. The more complicated answer has to start with the fact that in the present we lack any kind of workers' political organisation at all, this being compounded by the fact that only a very tiny minority of the working class have a reformist socialist consciousness, let alone anything resembling a revolutionary class consciousness. It is said that left union leaders or the potentially reformist or centrist leaders of a new mass workers' party will betray the class. This is almost certainly true. However, unless the class is first organised politically as a class and conscious of its own independent role, there will not be mass political struggles in the first instance. A large section of the working class will only come to revolutionary class consciousness when they have first engaged in class struggle politics. To restrict ourselves to only supporting a new workers' party on the condition that is be a revolutionary party would in the current circumstances be sectarian folly which would keep us marginalised and unable to influence the development of such a party when it arises. A new workers' party will eventually arise in this period - the situation where the working class has no political organisation of its own cannot last indefinitely, unless the working class somehow miraculously disappears and capitalism resolves its internal contradictions. It is a matter of time, although this could be a few decades (it would be a disaster for the class if it takes this long). The current lack of a workers' party arises because of the demise of both the reformist social democratic parties and the collapse of Stalinism. For the class to fight as a class it needs first and foremost class-struggle political organisation and that inevitably includes people with centrist or reformist politics - indeed probably a majority who have such politics. To counterpose the need for 'revolutionary' mass organisation to any new workers' party is to race ahead of the current level of organisation and consciousness of the class. To fight reformism we do not stand aside from the current need for a new party and denounce it as being the project of betrayers and reformists - we need to be at the fore of trying to help build such a new party and push it in the direction of confrontational class politics. We need to demonstrate that we are the best fighters for the class and that we put the interests of the class as a whole first. Reformism is not defeated by denunciation: it is defeated by showing up its total inadequacy in the heat of political struggle. So when reformist leaders of the RMT union (and hopefully other trade unions) look at the possibility of organising a new party we should not denounce them as reformists engaged in a reformist project, but on the contrary urge them not to be conservative but to forge ahead and break finally from New Labour and build a new workers' party that fights for the interests of the working class. To do this does not mean we have to abandon advocating a revolutionary perspective - we should be honest to reformist workers and say that a new class-struggle party is needed where we fight together. Of course the last thing we need is a Labour Party mark two - and there will undoubtedly be some forces within a new party that will wish it to be such a party. The nature of such a new party will of course depend on the balance of forces within it and the extent to which it engages in the class struggle. In the current circumstances I think it most likely that a new workers' party will be a class-struggle party which is reformist with a large revolutionary minority. Of course if revolutionaries are at the fore of the struggle to build a new party, then our influence will not only be much higher, but we will also have earned respect from workers who do not yet currently share our politics. However, the most important factor is that the existence of such a new party will raise the organisational level and the consciousness of a significant section of the class. It may be that in time such a party will have a mass base and become dominated by revolutionary politics - or it may be that the circumstances arise where the needs of the class struggle and the reformist leadership of such a party requires the revolutionary wing to break from the party. Either way, we can only dream of such fertile conditions for revolutionary politics at present. Perhaps a key thing to say about this is that, unless we are talking about building a tiny sect, or propaganda group if you prefer, then a revolutionary party necessitates having a mass membership and mass support in the class - it has to be an organic part of the working class to be a revolutionary party. For revolutionary politics to ever have a future it is absolutely essential that we address the question of the need for a new workers' party and that we engage with those forces in the working class who share the desire for a new party - and that includes the reformist leaders in trade unions such as the RMT, the Fire Brigades Union and the wider union movement. We need to prove our worth by our actions in the struggle for a new party - not by hollow denunciations of reformism, when in a sense reformism barely exists at present. I have argued that a new party will never come about just due to an upsurge in class struggle. I absolutely stand by that - times of heightened class struggle will typically throw up temporary forms of class organisation such as soviets, factory councils, the miners' support groups and so on, but new political parties will not emerge from nothing, however fierce the class struggle at the time. This is not to deny that periods of heightened class struggle can completely transform already existing parties of the class. Indeed that is to be very much expected. Leaders who claim to be reformist can show their real colours as class traitors at such times - and some of them will excel as class fighters and move towards revolutionary politics. On the other hand, some self-professed revolutionaries will actually reveal themselves to be pathetic reformists in the face of real mass struggles of the class. The membership and politics of a workers' party has a dialectical relationship with the class and what is most important is not necessarily the professed politics of the leadership of such a party or its programme, but the degree to which it is really imbedded in the class. To put off the fight for a new workers' party until there are better conditions of 'heightened class struggle' is to abandon that fight altogether. To argue that a new workers' party will only come into its own and be transformed in a period of heightened class struggle is to state the obvious - an already existing new party can certainly be transformed into a mass party by a period of class struggle. But only the conscious efforts of socialists will initiate a new party - and that is something we need to do now as a matter of some urgency if we wish to see the struggle for socialism progress.