What sort of 'Marxist party'?

A new formation must avoid from the start all the failings of the Trotskyist sects, writes Mike Macnair

Two of the comrades involved in the Critique/Democratic Socialist Alliance call for a conference to discuss a Campaign for a Marxist Party have now responded to my article criticising the terms of the appeal that accompanied it (Weekly Worker July 13).

Matthew Jones's letter is helpful in addressing some of the issues involved (July 20). It also exposes to clearer view the weaknesses of the political ideas of at least one of the comrades centrally involved. Barry Biddulph's letter (July 27) accuses me, on no very clear grounds, of "dishonest polemic". His substantial point is concerned exclusively with the 'how' problem: OK, we may agree that we want a Marxist party and even on what we mean by that; but how do we get there from here?

I should begin by restating the opening point of my previous article: "Critique's initiative in calling for a conference to campaign for a new Marxist party (Letters, July 6) is welcome; but how far it will get it problematic." I restate it because both Matthew and Barry seem to think that I oppose Critique's call, when in fact I said it was "welcome", but then went on to make some criticisms of the terms of the call as potentially weakening its usefulness.

Matthew begins by saying that I criticise the appeal "for the lack of a 'concrete political programme' - somewhat prematurely, given that this is an appeal to establish a Campaign for a Marxist Party. It is the start of a debate - we could hardly prescribe such things at the start of the process."

I agree entirely that a conference call cannot include a full party platform. However, my objection to the text was not that it is too short and ought to define a line on everything. It is that it is so formulated as to risk proposing a party based on ideology - that is, 'Marxism' as theory - as opposed to proposing a party based on the fundamental strategic conclusions of Marxism: ie, the leading role of the working class, the need for the class to undertake a political struggle for power through political democracy, and the international character of the class struggle. By responding that the call is not a full programme, Matthew has evaded the underlying issue.

'Revolutionary overthrow'

Matthew writes that "[Mike] throws in the notion of 'the working class taking political power in the form of the democratic republic', which he contrasts to 'revolutionary overthrow', characterised as 'Bakuninist'. This looks suspiciously like some form of two-stage revolution. Is the 'democratic republic' a capitalist formation (I think it is) or one in which the working class has overthrown capital? If Mike is trying to smuggle in this key element of Stalinist politics, then we have a profound difference."

I have written at considerable length on this issue in my long series on strategy earlier this year (available at www.cpgb.org.uk/theory/series.htm), especially the articles of March 30, April 13, May 18 and the concluding one of June 15. It would help if comrade Matthew or one of his co-thinkers addressed directly the arguments made there.

The fundamental question posed is: what does it mean for the working class to "overthrow capital"? In my view it means the working class taking political power into its own hands. This will certainly involve some expropriatory action as a means of resisting capitalist coercion, but does not mean the general nationalisation of the economy. As we have seen in the USSR (etc), and several neo-colonial regimes, the general nationalisation of the economy is not the same as its socialisation.

I could, of course, go at length into the lamentable history of the 'statisation and planification' criterion for identifying a workers' state, in its use by the Trotskyists between 1947 and down to their responses to 1991; and the brutal and justified critiques of this approach offered from within the organised Trotskyist movement by Vern-Ryan and Marcy-Copeland in the 1950s and by Saleh Jaber in the 1980s. But I think this is now of limited and merely historical interest.

If the working class taking political power into its own hands does not consist of universal nationalisation and planification, what does it consist of? The answer I give follows Marx and Engels: it consists of winning the democratic republic. In my May 18 article, I suggested a minimum platform on this front including, at least, universal military training and service, democratic political and trade union rights within the military, and the right to keep and bear arms; election and recallability of all public officials; public officials to be on an average skilled worker's wage; abolition of official secrecy laws and of private rights of copyright and confidentiality; self-government in the localities; and abolition of constitutional guarantees of the rights of private property and freedom of trade.

If Matthew thinks that a state of this type is a "capitalist formation", he should direct his critique at Marx and Engels, from whose writings I have copied, rather than accusing me of "trying to smuggle in this key element of Stalinist politics", the "two-stage revolution".

Now as far as the 'what sort of party do we need?' question is concerned, I said in my original article on the Critique appeal that I would not wish to argue for a party which Trotskyists could not join or in which they could not fight for their strategic line. But I am against a pre-commitment to the Trotskyist strategic line, for three reasons. The first is that it is in my opinion wrong.

The second is that it is intimately connected to bureaucratic centralism, through the following argument: (1) capitalism can only be overthrown by a 'revolution' (meaning a mass strike movement leading to a civil war); (2) the success of such a movement requires a 'party of the Bolshevik type' (meaning as defined by the Second and Third Congresses of the Comintern: ie, bureaucratic centralist); therefore (3) what we need to do now is build such a party. QED.

The third is that it is also intimately connected to Trotskyist economism and opportunism. In Trotskyist strategy the key is not winning a majority for a concrete minimum programme, but setting the masses in motion, which will spontaneously produce strike committees and (when the strike movement becomes generalised) councils of action: the Trotskyists will then urge 'all power to' these bodies. But the result is that, before such bodies emerge, all that matters to the Trotskyists is that people should be mobilised - and the concrete content of the party programme is abandoned whenever abandoning it makes it easier to mobilise people. Which leads to Respect, the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, etc.


Matthew says: "On the question raised by Mike of a 'party line' on science, I am amazed that he can infer this from the appeal; the actual intention is to take a serious approach to theory - unlike the sects, where the 'line' is repeated parrot-fashion and members do not develop as Marxists."

I am pleased that Matthew repudiates the possibility that the comrades' projected party would create party lines on scientific questions. It is unfortunate that he has not responded to my concrete suggestions about the implications of the question for the practical tasks of a Marxist party: ie, what it would practically mean for such a party to "take a serious approach to theory".

I would add that the evidence is pretty clear that our understanding progresses dialectically - and therefore that the education of party militants in Marxist theory advances primarily (a) through the internal tendency and factional struggles of the party, and (b) through the members entering into intimate political conflict with the supporters of opposed ideologies - like the new Stalinists of the Socialist Workers Party, the old Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain and the Labourites.

Bureaucratic centralism

Matthew writes: "Mike attacks my omissions on the right of tendency and faction plus the right to publicly air differences - fair enough: this should be in the constitution of any healthy organisation. However, this is an appeal for the conference to start the process. We aren't going to produce a huge document full of proposals that comrades have to sign up to in advance. The point of it is to raise the issue and we have succeeded in this."

This argument would be more plausible if it were not for two facts. First, the appeal does not limit itself to abstract opposition to bureaucratic centralism, but does propose some concrete measures. It just leaves out the rights of tendency and faction and public debate. Why? Second, the rights of tendency and faction and public debate are right now burning issues - not just raised by the CPGB, but also, to take only one example, critical elements in the debate between the SWP and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.

Matthew does not, on the other hand, answer my objections to the use in the conference call of formulations on this issue which are clearly utopian, and by being utopian would practically paralyse any concrete struggle against the emergence of bureaucratic centralism.

Also left wholly unanswered in Matthew's letter are two very important points in my July 13 article. The first is my objection to the formulation: "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." I objected that "reasoning of this type has been repeatedly used to argue against the adoption of a concrete written strategic programme ... 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."

Secondly, I noted that in point 3 on democracy, "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."

Why are these points unanswered?


Matthew concludes with the claim that I am "trying go away from [my] Trotskyist past and towards Stalinism".

It is mildly entertaining to be accused of moving towards Stalinism in response to an article in which I have argued for freedom of tendency and faction and of public debate in any Marxist party, and for term limits on leadership office. I was no doubt also moving "towards Stalinism" when I included in my previous week's contribution the statement: "The project of bureaucratic 'socialism' ended in disastrous failure. It is utterly stupid to imagine that attempting to repeat it will improve the situation of the working class" (Weekly Worker July 6).

There is nonetheless a serious point. Matthew writes: "It is important to recognise that, for all the faults of the sects that have come from it, Trotskyism is the political inheritor of the revolutionary politics of 1917." Actually, this view is a trap.

In the first place, 1917 was a combined (bourgeois and proletarian) revolution, starting against the feudal-absolutist tsarist state regime, in a peasant-majority country dominated by pre-capitalist social relations in the countryside. Whether you use Lenin's, Trotsky's or Kautsky's categories to analyse what happened, there are very few places in the world where revolutionary praxis will involve closely analogous social dynamics: even those countries where agriculture still dominates the economy are in the main characterised by capitalist social relations. We therefore have to work out Marxist strategy for working class power in the light of the whole history of the workers' movement and the fundamentals of Marxist theory, not make a fetish of the forms and figures of 1917.

Secondly, Trotskyism is the inheritance of the first four congresses of the Comintern, which is a very different matter from the revolutionary politics of 1917. More on this in my strategy series. Its pertinence to the present question is that the early Comintern provided the fundamental arguments for bureaucratic centralism: and to critique these is to critique Trotskyism.

Thirdly, it is by no means the case that Trotsky was heroically correct in his analysis and it is only his followers who have corrupted his doctrine. For example, his analysis of the USSR was clearly falsified by the course of 1941-45; hence his followers' inability to use it after his death.

The problem I identified in various aspects of the conference call was that the call was capable of being read as a call for a new party of the existing Trotskyist type - with the difference merely that it made moral or utopian commitments to 'do better' on democracy, theory, etc. But this has been tried repeatedly: at the origins of the Matgamna organisation or of the International Socialist Group, to take two among many examples. Matthew's criticism of me for breaking with Trotskyism tends to confirm my original fear that what is proposed is not a Marxist party but a Trotskyist party.


The final point of my critique was on the 'how' problem. Matthew says: "Mike tries to defend the position of chasing the sects "¦" and follows it with severe criticisms of the SWP and Respect, most of which I would share. He goes on: "The political sterility of the sects and the fact that the overwhelming majority of comrades who are seriously thinking about Marxism are not in these outfits means that 'where the Marxists are' is not anywhere near Respect." Rather similarly, in his final point one of the accusations against me of "moving towards Stalinism" is for stating that "Stalinist outfits such as the CPB are worth debating with and have significant numbers of actual or potential Marxists".

In this matter Matthew follows not his hero, Trotsky, but one of Trotsky's opponents in the 1930s, American sectarian Hugo Oehler, who argued that Trotskyists should address the worker masses rather than the decaying social democratic and Stalinist groups.

The CPB as such is a decaying sect which exists to give cover to the Morning Star. But this is not all it represents. In spite of 1991 and all that, the ideas of 'official communism' - bureaucratic centralism, national roads to socialism, the anti-imperialist front and people's front - remain dominant among socialists worldwide. This dominance is reflected in the evolution of the SWP towards 'official communism', and in the ideas of a great many unorganised militants. They are therefore unambiguously "worth debating with", since it is only by debating with people who hold these ideas that we can overcome them.

If we turn to the SWP, it is simply ludicrous to suppose that because this party is highly bureaucratic centralist it does not contain significant numbers of people who think they are Marxists, and are, indeed, abstractly committed to workers' power, workers' democracy and internationalism. The problem is that they are trapped by their belief in 'the revolutionary party' in loyalty to a rightward-moving sect. The point is true a fortiori of the other left groups.

Where, then, is the "overwhelming majority of comrades who are seriously thinking about Marxism" who "are not in these outfits"? If what is meant is the members of no party, the 'indies', they have so far been characterised by their utter inability to unite for any serious political action. If Matthew supposes that there are "comrades who are seriously thinking about Marxism" of whom there is no evidence in the actual political movement, they are presumably armchair Marxists. Or perhaps these "comrades who are seriously thinking about Marxism" are actually a very small number indeed: that is, the DSA and their immediate interlocutors.


Barry addresses the 'small number' problem in a different way. He starts with my point that:

"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" (Weekly Worker July 13).

Barry says that this 2,000-3,000 "just happens to be the estimated membership of the SWP. In other words [Mike] is not supporting Critique because he is saying the only way forwards to a Marxist party is to reform the SWP or relate to the SWP membership, where most of the Marxists are ..."

Barry has two objections to the view that we have to go where the majority of the Marxists are. The first is that, according to him, in my strategy series I say that party democracy is essential to a Marxist party. Quite true. I say that in the absence of party democracy, you cannot get beyond sects of a few thousand - unless you have the backing of a state, whether it is the British state (Labour Party) or one of the bureaucratic regimes (old mass communist parties). Barry then infers: But the SWP is not democratic and has not been for nearly 40 years; therefore the members of the SWP are not Marxists. But this is to make 'Marxism' into a purity politics: you're not a Marxist unless you get everything right.

I say that many (not all) of the members of the SWP are Marxists, in the sense that they believe that the working class has to take political power and overthrow capitalism, and they believe that the class struggle is international in character. This elementary Marxism is overlaid with and in contradiction to their false dogmas about the nature of 'revolution' and the 'revolutionary party' which lead to bureaucratic centralism, formal ultra-leftism and practical rightism. But elementary Marxism is still part of their ideas - in contradiction with their practical politics.

Barry's second argument is that "there were far less than 2,000 to 3,000 members of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP for most of its history prior to 1914. At the 1912 conference, when they finally split with the Mensheviks, Lenin had less than 20 Bolsheviks in attendance."

In January 1912 the Bolsheviks organised a conference of the RSDLP in Prague, to which they did not invite the Menshevik liquidators. Twenty delegates attended a conference held in a foreign country; under conditions in which all political activity in Russia was illegal and practically risked arrest. This small number of delegates reflected a much larger base of support inside Russia. In April 1912 the Bolsheviks were putting into circulation - on the Mensheviks' figures - 29,000 copies of a daily paper in Petersburg, while the Mensheviks could only produce a weekly; later in 1912, the Bolsheviks won all the workers' seats in the class-stratified elections to the duma in Petersburg and Moscow. In other words, however small the Prague conference, the Bolsheviks had majority support in the workers' movement on the ground.

If Barry thinks that the small size of the Prague conference is a guide to our action, he must believe that the November conference called for by Critique could lead in the next few months to launching a mass-circulation workers' daily in London and winning all the parliamentary seats in the working class districts in London and Birmingham. I do not.

What this history indicates is that under conditions of illegality small groups of exiles may represent much broader forces in the internal workers' movement. I emphasise may because in Iraq, as we have seen, the groups of the emigration turned out to represent much less on the ground than they had believed.

But in Britain the workers' movement is not operating under conditions of illegality. In conditions of open politics, the real relationship of forces in the workers' movement is that which appears on the face of the membership numbers. That is, 100,000 or so 'pure trade unionist' activists; perhaps 50,000 ideologically committed Labourite activists (left and right) among the Labour Party's paper membership of slightly less than 200,000, and 400-500 organised Trotskyists in the Labour Party; around 500 CPB members, with a disproportionately large ideological periphery; 1,200-odd real members of the SWP, 600-700 in the Socialist Party, and another 500 or so in total in smaller grouplets.

In this relationship of forces those who understand the need for a Marxist party - a united and democratic party based on the fundamental political ideas of Marxism, as opposed to yet another Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, left communist or anarchist groupuscule - are at present a small minority, not a hidden majority like the Bolsheviks in 1912. Planting the flag for a Marxist party may be of some use. But it is important to be realistic enough to recognise that it will not immediately reverse the general relationship of forces. At best it can set in motion a dynamic towards unity. But it will not if we start by denying, as Barry does, that the ranks of the SWP are Marxists at all.


Behind these empirical issues is a much more serious point. Real democratic centralism involves the willingness to be in a minority: both from majorities, who have to recognise the possibility that they may become a minority and refrain from unprincipled expulsions; and from minorities, who have to fight to become a majority and refrain from unprincipled walk-outs.

The most common real reason for the endless splits of the far left is not any of the ideology about the 'revolutionary party', but the belief that the other side in debate is not really worth debating with, so we should get on with building in the fresh fields and pastures new of the uncorrupted people outside. This error can affect both majorities and minorities. In either case it actually amounts to internalising the capitalist conception of politics - as a competition for support among the uncommitted masses.

The DSA comrades have already committed this error once, when they walked out of the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform (provisional Socialist Alliance) in April 2005. Matthew's and Barry's letters suggest that they are in process of committing it again: that what they are seeking to create in November is a new Trotskyist party which will take up a sectarian attitude towards 'the sects' in the hope of building a party among the "comrades who are seriously thinking about Marxism" that "are not in these outfits". The Critique conference call is, as I said in my original article, potentially valuable and fruitful. But if it takes the path implied by the two comrades it will be wholly sterile.