Fight where Marxists are

The organisation of a conference by the Critique group to campaign for a new Marxist party is welcome, writes Mike Macnair. But how far it will get is problematic

There are two problems with Critique's statement accompanying its announcement of a conference on Saturday November 4: the 'what sort of party?' problem, which the text addresses, and the 'how?' problem, which it does not.

What sort of party?

Like Critique, the CPGB has argued for a Marxist party, and put forward resolutions calling for its establishment to be adopted as a goal. But what we have meant by a 'Marxist party' is narrowly but significantly different from the content of the Critique call.

The substance of the difference is that the CPGB has argued, since soon after the dissolution of the old 'official' Communist Party, for a formation that is based on a concrete political programme, not on a political ideology (in the neutral sense of 'ideology', meaning systematic theory, rather than the derogatory sense, meaning apologetics for 'what is'). The idea of a party based on an ideology - Trotskyism, state capitalism, and so on - is one of the root elements of the present division of the Marxist left into competing sects.

For this reason our resolution for a Marxist party to the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform's 'new party' conference in 2005 focused on two very basic elements of strategy which differentiated the 'Marx party' of the later 19th century from its utopian socialist opponents: the politics of class independence; and the politics of democracy, both in the state and in the movement. The resolution was clearly insufficient in at least one respect: it did not insist on the international character of the class struggle. Nonetheless, the basis for a party is strategic political tasks - not the theoretical understandings which form arguments for the strategic political tasks.

The Critique call, however, has a number of features which risk remaining within the framework of a party based on ideology.

1. That the party should be openly Marxist and in favour of the overthrow of capitalism.

We have used 'Marxist party' as shorthand for the essential political ideas of the 'Marx party'; and also to express the idea of a united party of the existing Marxists (the latter point is part of the 'how' question, below). In our view, in fact, the accurate name of such a party is Communist, in spite of the terrible connotations which the history of Stalinism has given to this name. Names are important, but negotiable.

But the underlying question is: what is the basis of the party? If it is the fundamental strategic political tasks which differentiate the 'Marx party' from ethical, christian, islamic, green, nationalist, etc socialisms, then this is essential. If being "openly Marxist" is to mean that the party is to encourage and facilitate education in Marxist theory and the development of Marxist theory, this is equally essential. But if the basis of the party is to be a particular interpretation of Marxist theory, then we are back in the world of the sects.

An equal ambiguity is in what is meant by being "in favour of the overthrow of capitalism". The 1880 opening of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier puts the issue much more clearly:


l That the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race;

l That the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production (land, factories, ships, banks, credit);

l That there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them: (1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress; (2) The collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;


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

l That a 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;

"The French socialist workers, in adopting as the aim of their efforts the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to community of all the means of production, have decided, as a means of organisation and struggle, to enter the elections with the following immediate demands "¦"

The difference is simple. The Parti Ouvrier programme specifies what the Marxists are positively for: the emancipation of the productive class, and thereby of all human beings, through the working class laying collective hands on the means of production, a process which incidentally involves expropriating the capitalists.

The conference call, in contrast, specifies what the Marxists are against - capitalism - and that we stand for its "overthrow". But it is wholly unclear whether what is meant by this "overthrow" is the positive goal of the working class taking political power in the form of the democratic republic, or the Bakuninist fetish of the mass-strike "revolutionary overthrow" beloved of the modern Trotskyists.

A serious Marxist party would have to have the possibility at least and probably the actuality of a Trotskyist faction or factions within it. But it would be essential not to have a pre-commitment to Trotskyism in the party's platform, since the Trotskyist mass-strike policy supports the bureaucratic-centralist character of Trotskyist groups and their inability to get beyond sects. The use of the expression "overthrow of capitalism" risks being such a pre-commitment.

Party and science

4. The party has to have a serious approach to Marxist theory, starting with political economy - party policy and activity has to be informed by theoretical understanding. We must examine the process and effects of the decline of capitalism. In the broader sense we recognise that Marxism requires debate and action to develop and any serious party must support and encourage this process.


8. In academic circles we fight for the development of Marxism and against the remnants of Stalinism and the sterility of post-modernism. The party must work to create a productive interaction between the specialist knowledge of academics and the experience of the working class.

The danger of these formulations, which are entirely orthodox Trotskyism (etc), is of creating a 'party line' on questions of science.

Engels wrote to Kautsky in 1891: "That voices should have been raised in the parliamentary group demanding that the Neue Zeit be subject to censorship is truly delectable. Is the spectre of the parliamentary group's dictatorship at the time of the anti-socialist law (a dictatorship that was, of course, essential and excellently managed) still at large or is it a harking back to the sometime close-knit organisation of von Schweitzer? After the liberation of German socialist science from Bismarck's anti-socialist law, what more brilliant idea than to subject it to a new anti-socialist law to be thought up and implemented by the officials of the Social Democratic Party" (MECW Vol 49, p133; www.marxists.org.uk/archive/marx/works/1891/letters/91_02_23.htm).

'Party lines' on questions of science have nonetheless been one of the disastrous features of the 20th century left. In relation to the physical sciences, they should have been sufficiently discredited by Lysenko-ism and all the rest. But in history and the social sciences they persist. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, still operates to this day party lines on the questions both of human origins and on that of the historical transition from feudalism to capitalism, as well as - most obviously - the theoretical analysis of the former Soviet regime as "state capitalist".

The issue is a delicate one. It is a task of a workers' party to facilitate debate and discussion on questions of "socialist science", to use Engels' helpful expression. It is a task of such a party to educate its members in "socialist science" so that they are able to manipulate scientific arguments. Indeed, a Marxist workers' party of any size would have among its tasks providing or promoting workers' elementary, secondary and higher education - including in basic literacy, etc.

Similarly, it is a task of a workers' party to induce the leftist and Marxist academics to participate in party-run theoretical discussions and in workers' educational activities; and to facilitate their collective action as academics: ie, in pursuing collective research activities within the framework of their Marxist commitments or in carrying on polemics against the forms of pro-capitalist ideology produced in the academy.

At the other end of the spectrum it is very clear that such a party should not vote a 'line' binding on its members on questions of the physical sciences, history or even political economy. At best the result of doing so is that the party makes itself look foolish; at worst, the result is the creation of a sterile dogmatism of the sort that has characterised most of the Trotskyist left in the last half-century.

Should such a party publish explicitly anti-Marxist writing, or writing which its leadership/editorial boards, etc, considers to be anti-Marxist (a rather different matter)? My personal opinion on this is as follows. If the writing in question is part of a debate within the party, the party should publish it in spite of its anti-Marxist character: this is a matter of political democracy and openness. If the writing expresses views which are common in the movement - like the "rejection of class reductionism", originally argued by the Eurocommunists and now commonplace on the left - there is a good case for publishing the strongest possible version of the argument in the party press and replying to it.

If, however, the party - like the old 'official' CP - devoted major resources to publishing explicitly anti-Marxist work, like much of what appeared in Marxism Today, and did not give equal space to Marxist replies, the members should properly judge that the party leadership was not merely pursuing freedom of socialist science but was positively carrying on an offensive against the strategic political line of Marxism. Of course, the Eurocommunists in the old 'official' CP were not in reality immediately concerned to change the strategic political line of the party, which was already class-collaborationist; they wanted to create theory which would fit the existing class-collaborationist line. The defeat of the 'tankies' reflected in the end the fact that they had already sold the pass on political strategy by supporting the British road to socialism "¦ It is round questions of political strategy, not theory, that a party has to be formed and that political fights within the party leading to votes need to take place.

This by no means answers all the questions posed by this issue. But it is enough to indicate that the formulations on this in the conference call are seriously problematic.

Vagueness and utopianism

2. "¦ the party cannot afford 'bureaucratic centralism', elites or self-appointed leaders.

The proposition quoted here contains a clear truth: we have to get rid of bureaucratic centralism. Getting rid of bureaucratic centralism at least partially is the precondition for achieving unity of the Marxists. I have cut from the quotation above the proposition that "We are in favour of the maximum possible degree of internal democracy", which is platitudinous and could be agreed without the least difficulty by Joe Stalin or Tony Blair (let alone George Galloway or John Rees "¦).

But it certainly follows from getting rid of bureaucratic centralism that, as I have also cut, "All party officers must be elected and recallable by the members, including those who work for the party. Party employees and any comrades elected to bourgeois democratic institutions should receive no more than the average wage. The lesson of the SSP is once again that the membership must have access to the maximum possible amount of information."

There are some things missing here, however:

(1) Breaking with bureaucratic centralism requires full liberty to organise platforms, tendencies and factions within the party. Further, since we are not talking about creating a clandestine party, there has to be full freedom of horizontal communication between members of different branches, etc, free of control by the apparatus or central or local elected leaderships.

(2) It is indispensable to separate discipline in actions agreed by the party from freedom of public criticism. The secrecy of 'internal' debates in the sects is one of the prime motors of unprincipled splits, as we have just seen in the cases of Workers Power and the Australian Democratic Socialist Party.

(3) In my personal opinion - not a CPGB view - a party of any size will also need term limits on the holding of elected office, including full-time employment by the party in any posts which involve leadership roles: ie, that after a period in office comrades have to stand down and return to the ranks for a period before they can again stand for office. This is a measure drawn from classical republicanism, working against the tendency to convert leadership posts into a form of private property, which has characterised the workers' movement in general.

When the call says that the party cannot afford "elites or self-appointed leaders" it is engaging in utopianism.

"Elites" in this context is meaningless unless it means that some comrades are more experienced, have wider knowledge of Marxist theory, etc, than others. A Marxist party should commit to attempting as far as possible to overcome these differences in advantages and skills: by educating all its members as leaders or potential leaders; and by basing itself on a clear, written platform, not a 'tradition' which is accessible only to long-standing members. But to abolish the existence of the differences would imply not merely the prior overcoming of class society, but also the disappearance of the fact that humans start out young, grow old and die, and along the way acquire knowledge and experience by work.

Moreover, all leaders who are worth anything are both "self-appointed" and "appointed" by those who choose to follow them. All leaders are self-appointed in the sense that it is impossible to lead without proposing a course of action to others. If Jane Doe is elected branch organiser against her will and then does nothing, and Rebecca Roe, who has not been elected, then makes all the proposals for common action which wind up being agreed, Jane Doe is not a leader, however much she is elected, and Rebecca Roe is a "self-appointed" leader. But if Rebecca could never obtain support beyond her own vote for her proposals, she would not be a leader; and this would be just as much true of Jane if she was elected and made proposals which were all thrown out.

'Leaders' who are not self-appointed will be familiar to anyone with any experience in the organised far left. They are those bright young things (often from the student union executives) who are brought onto central committees or to work as full-timers, as clients of the longer-standing leaders of the group. A few of them manage to turn into real leaders: the majority are useless hacks who parrot degraded versions of their patrons' ideas.

"¦ The politics and practice of the party must emerge from the process of interaction between the experience of the working class in struggle and the memory and theoretical understanding of the class, as represented by the membership of the party.

It is a true theoretical proposition that the workers' organisations (trade unions, as well as parties) play the role of the collective memory and theoretical understanding of the working class, just as the state apparatus and related organisations play the role of the collective memory and theoretical understanding of the capitalist class. This formulation has some important merit, as against the reduction of class consciousness to 'experience' which characterises both the Mandelite Fourth International and the SWP. But it is not an immediate guide to action: it needs to be mediated by concrete proposals as to how the party will play this role.

In particular, reasoning of this type has been repeatedly used to argue against the adoption of a concrete, written strategic programme ("the politics and practice "¦ must emerge "¦"). In this usage, it is directly anti-scientific. We progress in our understanding through advancing hypotheses, and then correcting them in experiment/practice. Without the initial hypothesis (the adopted programme) there is nothing to correct, and what we are left with is suck-it-and-see empiricism, which soon collapses into a vacuous political opportunism, as in the SWP.

3. The party must campaign for the extension of democracy throughout society in communities, the workplace and in the organisations of the working class. Part of this will be an effort to expose the role of the trade union and labour bureaucracies in maintaining the rule of capital and the capitalist state and a campaign to root out the bureaucracy and end the use of bureaucratic methods.

Again, there is a substantial truth here. But there are three weaknesses.

The first is that there is no mention of democracy in the state (or in the European Union "¦). In this respect, the formulation used in the call could serve all too easily as a cover for an antecedent commitment to the dead-end economism characteristic of the existing far left.

The second is that there is no clarity as to what is meant by "democracy". I accept that our own 'What we fight for' column and the CPGB's 'Marxist party' resolutions have been no clearer; but 'What we fight for' does at least mention the democratic republic in this context.

Thirdly, the point proposes "a campaign to root out the bureaucracy and end the use of bureaucratic methods". This is utopianism again. The bureaucracies of the workers' organisations, big and small, exist (a) because under capitalism the petty proprietor managerial class/intelligentsia collectively monopolises certain administrative skills; and (b) because capital offers workers free time only in the demoralising and pauperising form of unemployment. As a result, full-time administrative staff ('bureaucrats') are necessary to effective workers' organisations. People from working class backgrounds who become professional administrators become part of the managerial class/intelligentsia by acquiring administrative skills.

There is, therefore, a necessary class contradiction in trade unions and workers' parties between the lay members and the officials. The problem is to subordinate the officials to the members: and this is the point of Critique's proposal 2 and what I have added above. To attempt to abolish bureaucracy altogether, as the text proposes in proposal 3, in any way other than by completing the global socialist revolution, is utopian and leads merely to inability to organise.


Most of the eight points of the conference call can be agreed by almost everyone on the far left - subject to a variety of reservations of the kind I have made above about their possibly dangerous ambiguities (not necessarily with the same substance, obviously).

In fact, the standard answer to the proposition that we need a Marxist party - from leftists both organised and independent - is that 'Of course that has to be the long-term goal, but right now what we have to do is start from where people are at.' 'Where people are at' turns out to mean a new left Labourite party (Campaign for a New Workers' Party), or a Respect-type coalition, or a 'green socialist' party, or Dave Craig's 'republican socialist party', or a 'network'.

The conference call quite correctly starts from the proposition that all these projects are objectively worthless: they will not lead to even one step forward for the workers' movement, because "the only way the ruling class would concede serious reforms is if it wanted to buy time in the face of a direct threat by revolutionary, Marxist organisations with a mass following. Reformism itself can deliver nothing except further defeats and betrayals."

But it mistakenly argues that their bankruptcy has already been "exposed" and that, "Not only are reformism and Stalinism bankrupted and exhausted, but bourgeois democracy itself is increasingly discredited. Universal suffrage was only conceded in most imperialist countries in response to the Russian Revolution and, as the crisis becomes more acute, these institutions are increasingly sidelined and held in contempt by both the ruling class and the working class."

The problem is that this idea conflicts with the correct theoretical understanding in point 2 that the workers' organisations function as the collective memory of the class. The bankruptcy of social democracy, Stalinism and Trotskyism are grasped by the broad masses in the form of cynicism and despair about politics, willingness to vote for the far right, a revival of religion and other forms of irrationalism, live-today hedonism and binge-drinking. In the layer of working class activists, however, the predominant response at present is to cling to the old ideologies like disoriented mariners clinging to the sinking ship. As the institutional memory of the class, they remember only 1945-89; the Trotskyists add a sort of ideologised version of 1917-45, but one that has lessons for a fantasy of the far future, not for the present.

Unity and fragmentation

The Asian crisis of 1998 precipitated a crisis of legitimacy of neoliberal globalisation, finding expression in efforts towards left unity which made significant progress. The dot-com crash of 2000 exacerbated the problem for capital. The Republicans were already planning before George Bush's election to launch a war on Iraq as the way out of the problem. 9/11 gave them the legitimacy, and - as The Economist pointed out in June 2003 - the actual invasion of Iraq refloated the markets.

The 'war on terror' also benefited capital in another way. It precipitated a sharp division among leftists worldwide, as a (small) section of the left fell in behind the war drive, while a larger section imagined a return to the glory days of the youth of their leaders in the movement against the Vietnam War.

In England and Wales, the fragile left unity of the Socialist Alliance was destroyed. The SWP turned to direct blocking control of the SA in pursuit of its 'anti-imperialist' alliance with the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain and hoped-for alliance with political islamists. This in turn led to the Socialist Party, Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty pulling out of unity in pursuit of their own sectarian party-building projects.

In each case, the belief was that by directly addressing the cynical and despairing masses it would be possible to win "new forces" to replace the "old left" (the SWP's phrase), the "petty bourgeois left" (SP), the "kitsch left" (AWL) or the "centrists" (Workers Power).

In no case has the project succeeded. Respect has won electoral votes, but not built a real base. The SP has restabilised itself after a crisis, but the Campaign for a New Workers' Party involves, in substance, the same old far-left faces.

What has been possible is some degree of local success in winning support, either where one left group or project is so dominant that others are marginalised or must go along with it (eg, Respect in the East End and Birmingham; the SP in Coventry and Lewisham; the Independent Working Class Association on the estates of outer east Oxford) or where unity has survived locally its national destruction (eg, Swindon).

In this situation it should be clear that the idea of a Marxist party which will begin with the forces represented by Critique, New Interventions and the Democratic Socialist Alliance to address the broad masses is hopeless. At most it will achieve some more local successes. More likely, the result would be merely to create another sect - or another pure-discussion journal like What Next? and New Interventions.

The positive key to the 'how' is to fight now for a united party of the existing Marxists. That is, the existing militants who think they are Marxists - the SWP, the SP, the CPB, the smaller groups and the numerous independents. This is a fight which has to be carried on against bureaucratic centralism, against concrete forms of opportunism (like the SWP's votes in Respect on immigration, etc), as opposed to being abstractly against "concessions to populism or opportunism" (Critique's point 7), and against premature and unprincipled splits. It has to be carried on where the existing Marxists are: that is, primarily, in Respect, secondarily, in the CNWP, but also - if we had more forces - in the trade unions and in the Labour Party.

If the November conference moves in this direction it will really be a blow against the bankruptcy of the existing left. But I suspect that the completely correct statements of point 7 in favour of "firmness of principles "¦ allied to tactical flexibility" will turn out to be abstract. There is a real danger, given the splitting past of the Democratic Socialist Alliance group, that instead a sectarian response to Respect will dominate.

The call's ridiculous characterisation of Respect as a "rightwing communalist organisation" points in that direction. The accurate - and contradictory - characterisation of it which immediately follows, as "a new kind of unpopular front" (ie, a small class-collaborationist bloc), has already been used by many leftists to denounce participation in it.

This will at the end of the day be the crunch question. It is most unlikely to be possible from the November conference to launch the sort of party that we need: to do that would need, say, 2,000-3,000 in attendance and willing to commit to the project, in order to force the rest of the left to respond to it. It would be possible to launch a more effective organising body than what is now available to fight for such a party.

But the fight would have to be conducted in intimate political conflict with the main organised far-left groups. And unless the Respect project collapses between now and then, that implies willingness to participate in fighting for an opposition in Respect.