What kind of new workers' party?

The question of a new party is appearing on the agenda of the workers' movement over and over again. But few are fighting for one based on a Marxist programme - including most of the Marxists, paradoxically. Nick Rogers gives an overview of this crucial debate

The March 19 launch of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party raises again the question of what kind of party will best serve the working class. Two thirds of the conference was composed of Socialist Party members. Most of the rest either belonged to smaller Marxist groups or, having left one Marxist sect or another, are 'independents' who continue to apply a Marxist analysis to one extent or another in their political work.

Yet for the majority of Marxists, it is axiomatic that a party designed to appeal to the mass of the working class cannot be explicitly Marxist or revolutionary. As a consequence, the CPGB's motion calling "for a workers' party based on the theory and practice of revolutionary Marxism" was heavily defeated - as was a Workers' Power motion that called for "a strategy for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of working class power". Another CPGB motion to the much smaller November 12 conference that relaunched the Socialist Alliance also went down to defeat.

It is surely a paradox that socialists who think of themselves as Marxists recoil from the opportunity to take their politics directly to the working class. Such coyness speaks either of a serious crisis of confidence or a stance of extreme elitism when it comes to the sphere of ideology and theory.

It is true that given the repeated failure of revolutionaries to make any long-term breakthrough into mass working class politics, the revolutionary left in Britain faces a genuine (almost existential) crisis. What is not excusable is the refusal of most Marxists to take any steps to tackle the root causes of their continuing political failure. In large part, this failure is an aspect of the wider crisis of working class politics in Britain.

Labour Party

In 1893, the Independent Labour Party was founded to represent the interests of the working class independently of the Liberal Party. Exactly a hundred years ago in 1906, the founding of the Parliamentary Labour Party represented the first significant electoral success for the new strategy of persuading the trade unions to support a party of the working class.

Today, we have a Labour government, nine years into office, enacting sweeping neo-liberal 'reforms' of social provision, spreading the free-market gospel, and fighting side-by-side with the United States in imperialist interventions.

The New Labour government is not in any shape or form a government of the working class. It is, therefore, correct to speak of a "crisis of working class representation" - a situation comparable in many ways to that of 1893. However, to revisit 1893 or 1900 (the formation of the Labour Representation Committee that brought the trade unions on board) or 1918 (when the Labour Party was refounded to allow individual membership) misses the point.

A Labour Party mark 2, or a reformist 'working class' party of any description, cannot but take the same trajectory followed by the Labour Party over the last 100 years - the only difference will be the fore-shortened time-scale. The working class cannot reform its way to socialism.

The working class movement - in the broadest sense - forced enormous economic and social changes on capitalism, but, if nothing else, capitalism has proven its impressive elasticity. As a social system it is able to adapt to change - and even quite severe crises - without breaking.

Especially in the post-war period, this gave the illusion that working class politics were taking giant strides forward. To an extent this was true. Trade union membership increased and in the 1960s and 70s working class combativity reached a peak. But this was an era of a very peculiar capitalist political economy.

The challenge of the Soviet Union on one side of the iron curtain and the dominance of the United States on the other permitted rapid economic growth in North America and western Europe and opened up an unprecedented space for reformist politics. But nowhere did reformism threaten capitalism as a political or social regime.

The politics of 'welfare capitalism' were not even the exclusive preserve of parties linked to the organised working class. Remember that across the developed capitalist world welfare states and workers' rights were conceded by governments of all political shades. In 1950s Britain, the Conservative Party of Macmillan famously promised to build more council houses than the Labour Party.

Today we are living with the consequences of the end of the political economy of the cold war and a global recomposition of the working class - a determined capitalist counter-attack. The role of the trade union leadership in resisting the neo-liberal offensive has been lamentable. The most striking example of this failure is offered by the internal dynamics of the Labour Party itself. There the trade unions continue to control almost half the votes at Labour Party conference and to elect the majority of representatives on the party's national executive committee.

Yet where has been the trade union resistance to measures which directly attack the livelihoods of their members? In the last couple of years the New Labour leadership has lost a small number of conference votes. But for the best part of a decade, Tony Blair stage-managed his way through conference after conference. How did the bulk of the trade union leaders choose to represent their members during this period? By participating in the stage-managing, that is how.

For years New Labour asserted its control over the Labour Party with the connivance of the trade union leadership - persuaded to avoided embarrassing the Labour Party for the sake of the most minimal of concessions. Or, in the case of the Warwick agreement for a series of promises that are now revealed to have meant nothing.

Yet where are the protests when Blair announces that a lost conference vote will make not a jot of difference to the direction of his government? Where are the votes against Blair on the national executive?

In many ways this outcome was predictable. The role of trade unions is to mediate between labour and capital. Trade union leaders will almost always see it as their duty to secure the best possible short-term deal for their members. Behind the scenes deals are their bread and butter. That is why the likes of Tony Blair will invariably be able to outmanoeuvre them. The trade union leadership is congenitally indisposed to launch a political confrontation that does not present a fairly immediate prospect of success. A Labour leader's trump card will always be the threat of a Tory government if a deal is not struck.

Of course the job of the trade union activist and militant is on all occasions to agitate for a more robust trade union response. That is a struggle that never ceases. The pressures towards compromise and moderation are unremitting. Just as constant in fact as the class struggle itself. For as long as capitalism exists, the fight against the influence of bourgeois ideology in the workers' movement must be fought.

The mistake is to place the trade unions in the driving seat of the political project of the working class. A formation such as the Labour Party remains an arena of class struggle - an upsurge in trade union militancy will surely be reflected in the Labour Party itself so long as New Labour does not move to finally break the 'organic' link with the trade unions.

But when it comes to discussion of the need for a new workers' party, the question of whether the Labour Party is reclaimable is largely beside the point. It has never been possible that the Labour Party could be won as an instrument of socialist transformation. The primary question has always been how those committed to the overthrow of capitalism and the building a socialist society should organise themselves. How they relate to the wider labour movement is a secondary issue open to strategic and tactical consideration and discussion.

Crisis of the revolutionary left

The long retreat of the trade union leaderships in the face of neo-liberalism and the hegemony of New Labour is not just a response to the changing configuration of the capitalism's political economy over the last 30 years, but a mark of the failure of the revolutionary left to build any kind of countervailing power.

The origin of this failure is in the internal regimes of the parties and groups of the revolutionary left. Lack of internal democracy, open debate, or the creative interplay of ideas makes it impossible to either retain members who think for themselves or to develop strategic responses that match the challenges of a rapidly evolving capitalism.

Conformity to the dogmas of the sect and loyalty to the leadership are the qualities necessary for survival, let alone advancement, in these regimes. They are also precisely the qualities that hinder the development of a vibrant, self-confident membership.

A call for a party based on the politics of Marxism is, therefore, not a demand that Marxists squeeze themselves into an organisational straitjacket that owes more to Stalinism than any other tradition. The need to is to launch a process of open discussion about the key organisational and programmatic questions of the Marxist tradition.

That certainly does not mean, for instance, a dogmatic, uncritical affirmation of the decisions of the first four congresses of the Communist International. The creation of centralised, partly militarised, party bureaucracies - combined with the 1921 ban on factions - paved the way for the semi-Stalinist practice of much of the Trotskyist movement. We need to examine the actual revolutionary practice of Marx and Engels. And of the Bolshevik party in the period before and immediately after the October revolution when internal party debate flourished with factions publishing their own public press.

The approach of the Socialist Party in the CNWP - as of the SWP in Respect - is to argue that these type of issues are irrelevant to the immediate needs of the working class and would hinder the building of a mass party. But in that case when will the politics of Marxism become relevant? And, if Marxism is not a living body of theoretical understanding and guidance, subject to vigorous debate, how will it ever win the support of the workers' movement?


The weakness of the CPGB's motion to the CNWP launch conference was that it failed to spell out the central role of the struggle for democracy within the workers' movement (including within the organisations of revolutionaries) as part of the process of revitalising Marxism.

The building of a revolutionary workers' party will not entail the reproduction or expansion of any of the existing groups. What is required is a pluralistic party committed equally to revolutionary transformation and the fullest democracy.

A CPGB motion that set out this vision was presented to the conference organised by the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform on March 12 2005. It passed. The position of the CPGB is discussed often enough in the pages of the Weekly Worker, but in all political arenas it helps if the challenge the CPGB is issuing to the revolutionary left is made explicit.

It is not just in relation to the inner-party regimes of the left that democracy is critical. If Marxism means anything it is a commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class and "to conquer political power" (in the words of the much misrepresented Inaugural address drafted by Marx for the First International).

Ultimately, a workers' state can only be the product of a political crisis of the capitalist regime. That is why the demand for the fullest extension of democracy must be at the centre of a revolutionary programme.

The arguments of the Revolutionary Democratic Group for prioritising the struggle for a democratic secular republic are correct in so far as they challenge the economism of the most of the left. But when the RDG draw a distinction between their republicanism and their full revolutionary programme - which is kept in reserve for the onset of the revolution itself - they fail to realise the full potential of a programme of democratic demands.

Why should a workers' party limit the democratic demands it makes? When these touch on the army and police force and the whole apparatus of the secret state, they challenge the very basis of bourgeois political power in our society.

From the time of the Levellers and the Chartists, Britain's most revolutionary periods have revolved around the question of how political power is exercised. The key to building a worker's movement that is capable of challenging for state power does not lie in preserving a dusty esoteric knowledge far from the sight of the mass of the working class, but in posing simple questions that take the argument for democracy to its logical conclusion.