Three political commitments

Unity not around 'Trotskyism', insists Mike Macnair, but around class independence, democracy and internationalism

In early summer we published on our letters page a call from Critique for a campaign for a new Marxist party1. A conference is to be held on Saturday November 4. The campaign is so far sponsored by Critique itself, the Democratic Socialist Alliance and New Interventions.

The following week we published an article I had written responding to Critique, welcoming the call itself but making some criticisms of the text, which I argued could lead to a danger of creating yet another sect.2 Comrades Matthew Jones (of the Critique supporters group and DSA) and Barry Biddulph (of the DSA) replied to my criticisms.3 I responded on August 3 and comrades Barry and John Pearson (of the DSA) replied in turn in the last issue of the paper before the summer break.4

Comrade Hillel Ticktin, in discussion at Communist University, argued against both the CPGB's more general approach of insisting on fighting for the unity of those who identify themselves as Marxists and of fighting with these self-identified Marxists where they are - ie, in various existing left formations; and against my specific identification of 'Trotskyism' as a part of the problem.5 Comrade Dave Spencer (of New Interventions and the DSA), who provided the first draft of a good deal of the Critique call, has not so far responded.6

The CPGB aggregate meeting on September 9 agreed to sponsor the conference. This is consistent with what I originally said: Critique's initiative in this call is welcome; the problem is how it can be made successful.

The other side of the coin is that most of the far left argues that there can be no unity of the Marxist left outside a project of unity of the broader left (whatever that is): ie, on the basis of the traditional politics of the Labour left - whether this is to be unity within the Labour Party (as Owen Jones and Graham Bash argued at Communist University), or outside the Labour Party in the form of the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party's Respect project, the Socialist Party in England and Wales's Campaign for a New Workers' Party, or Dave Craig's hypothetical "republican socialist" left unity party (most recently in Weekly Worker September 7).

Now these may appear to be micro-debates among micro-groups. But the actual political (and theoretical) questions are big ones and are relevant to the choices facing the working class movement and the left - not just in Britain, but in the large majority of countries in the world. So I make no apology for coming back to the debate for a third time.

'Marxist party'

What would it mean to create a Marxist party, and why would it be an innovation in relation to what we already have?

I have argued in my July 13 article and elsewhere that it means to build a definite political party (as opposed to a diffuse 'movement') which attempts to become a party of the working class - that is, a party based on and ultimately democratically controlled by working class militants organised in the working class districts (as opposed to a 'trade union party'); and which has certain elementary political commitments. These political commitments I identified as three:

l class-political independence: ie, that the working class needs a party independent of state, nation and 'left bourgeoisie' to defend its interests and to fight for working class rule;

l the struggle for political democracy, both in the larger society (and hence in relation to the state) and in the class movement itself; and

l the international character of the class struggle and the need for workers' unity internationally.

These are very general principles. But they have logical consequences which have immediate practical implications. For example, the principle of class-political independence implies rejection out of hand of the party participating as a minority in a capitalist government, or submerging the class party and the interests of the working class as such in a broader 'national movement' or 'democratic movement'.

The struggle for political democracy implies demands for openness, freedom of criticism and freedom to organise within the workers' movement and thus rejection of forms of apparatus control of factions like those practised by the SWP, and for accountability of leaders to the ranks - again unlike the practice of the SWP and its front organisations. I said more in my July 13 article.

The international character of the class struggle implies rejection out of hand of 'socialism in one country' and all forms of nationalist socialism or socialist nationalism; in concrete British politics, against the nationalist socialism of the SSP; against the little-Englander anti-EU campaign of the majority of the far left and for coordination of the efforts of the workers' movement in the EU; against immigration controls and conversely for the struggle to organise migrant workers.

The converse is that making these commitments does not entail adopting any particular theory - for example, 'permanent revolution' or 'stages theory'. Such a party is 'Marxist' in the sense that it is a party of the sort that Marx and Engels sought to create in the period after the First International, and that commitments of this sort were identified in that period as the ideas of the 'Marxists'.7 It is possible to reach these commitments by a variety of theoretical routes. Most of these routes will be in some sense 'Marxist'; all of them will be (as all 'Marxist' theory is) open to objection by some as being 'not really Marxist'. In building a political party, it is the political commitments which matter; disagreements about the theoretical routes by which they are reached, while important, are not decisive.

Something old, something new

In saying that such a party is 'Marxist' in the sense that it is a party of the sort that Marx and Engels sought to create in the period after the First International, I am saying that it is at least partly an old idea: that our task is to create a party which is at least partly like the parties of the Second International before World War I.

Incidentally, this bears on the arguments raised by comrades Jones and Ticktin that in criticising Trotskyism I am in effect moving towards Stalinism. It would be nearer the mark - though still wrong - to accuse me of being a Menshevik or Kautskyite, as comrade Tony Clark does.8

In fact, overt Menshevism or Kautskyism would be a move to the left and an improvement in the politics of the British far left. All the more so what I am arguing for, which is that the aim should be a party which was like the parties of the Second International but - as the three general principles imply - more democratic, more independent of the capitalist bureaucratic state, and more internationalist than these parties were.

Such a party would be something radically new because it would be a break with the state-loyalist nationalism of Labour, the French, German and Spanish Socialist Parties, the Italian Democratic Left and similar parties. It would be a break with the coalitionist politics of 'official' communism, still visible in Rifondazione's participation in the Prodi government, the PDS's participation in local coalitions in Germany and in a pathetic form in Respect. It would be a break with all forms of left nationalism and still more with illusory alliances of the working class movement with reactionary anti-capitalism (islamism, catholic social justice, greenism).

And it would be a break with the persistent determination of the far left groups to subordinate the positive struggle for political democracy in society and in the workers' movement to the idea of a 'Leninist combat party', to dogmatic commitment to the 'rejection of stageism', to 'the transitional method', or merely to the ephemeral supposed needs of alliances.

Comrade Ticktin, in his 'The need for a Marxist party' on the DSA website, argues that the legacy of the 20th century is that it is essential for Marxists to distinguish ourselves from Stalinism. Hence, "It is absolutely essential that we have a truly democratic party governed from below, where the leaders are changed every so often and which is reflective of the members of the party, and in principle of the population, in order to distinguish ourselves from what exists and from what has existed".9

This statement is perfectly correct. But it is, to be blunt, politically insufficient. We not only need to function democratically as a party, but also to fight for democratic governance in wider society. We need to make it utterly clear by doing so that the socialism we fight for is something which is more democratic and involves expanded political liberty, as compared to the existing capitalist regime.

Something borrowed, something blue

The majority of the existing far left disagree with the party goal proposed here. The ultimate party goal they seek is a 'revolutionary Marxist' party, by which they mean a party based on the theses of the first four congresses of Comintern plus something else - whether the 'something else' is to be Maoism; Trotskyism, variously interpreted (many groups); or some other body of theory.

For these comrades, since there is no mass support for a 'revolutionary Marxist' party, what is needed immediately is something for which they think there is visible present mass support: that is, something less than a Marxist party. Within such a broader movement, they argue, Marxists can struggle for political hegemony and thereby move closer to the ultimate goal of a mass 'revolutionary Marxist' party.

Now it is entirely right for Marxists to participate in, and attempt to win to elementary Marxist ideas, any broad-based workers' class movement or significant 'broad left' formation which actually comes into existence. The question is whether it is the job of Marxists to initiate attempts to create a 'broad movement', and to do so by deliberately agreeing to shut up (temporarily, of course) about our basic ideas and pretend to be the left Labourites, etc, who are not themselves taking the initiative.

This is in substance what the SSP is: Marxists are to shut up about the international character of the class struggle in order to build a 'real movement' where nationalism is for the moment in the ascendancy. And it is what Respect is: Marxists are to shut up about proletarian internationalism and hence both about open borders and about the workers' movement in the Middle East, and about democracy and accountability, in order to build a broad movement.

Comrade Dave Craig's "republican socialist" left unity party is less clear, because it has never approached the concrete; but it seems that the Marxists are to shut up both about proletarian internationalism and about democratic defence policy (universal military service, popular militia, right to bear arms) in order to attract left Labourites. In practice, it would also be necessary to shut up about democracy and accountability in the movement: Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and so on are no more willing to be accountable to an organised movement than George Galloway is, and even rank and file left Labourites like Mike Davies (now of the Alliance for Green Socialism) are fond of bureaucratic game-playing.

Where the left Labourites themselves begin to organise a movement against the right, we should certainly be willing to participate in and support it - while also defending our own politics. Hence the CPGB's present policy of critical support for John McDonnell's leadership campaign. But if Marxists are to try to create such a movement where none exists, it would involve us pretending to be left Labourites for the purpose. If we are open about our own political principles, the pretence falls down.

Borrowing left Labourite politics as a protective coloration turns out to be borrowing their loyalism to the existing bureaucratic-coercive state, or their nationalism, or their anti-democratic methods. But these, of course, were not originally the left Labourites' own: the left Labourites borrowed them as protective coloration to avoid being too sharply different from the Labour right. And the Labour right, in turn, borrowed them from the Tories in order to attract the 'centre ground'. 'Something borrowed' turns out to be 'something blue'.

In other words, the dynamic of Marxists shutting up about our elementary ideas for the sake of creating a broader, united movement is not that the Marxists win hegemony over the broader movement, but that the capitalist class and its political parties and political methods do so. The Sheridan affair provides, very regrettably, a classic example. All these various forms of 'broad left unity' counterposed to building a Marxist party are roads to political nullity. Comrades like Dave Craig who continue to insist on this policy do so in the face of a vast mass of evidence now accumulated not only in this country but also in Italy, Germany, Brazil "¦ and many other places.

It is this that makes Critique's intervention in favour of building a Marxist party so timely.

But, just as pretending to be something other than Marxists is disastrous, so it would also be useless to pretend that there are no differences among Marxists or among those who argue for a Marxist party. As I said in my July 13 article, the differences I have expressed with the Critique call and which comrades have subsequently debated concern two issues: (1) 'What sort of Marxist party?' And (2) 'How to get there?' The rest of this article is concerned with the 'What sort of Marxist party?' aspect; I will write on the 'How to get there?' problem in a subsequent article.


In my July 13 and August 3 articles I argued that the sort of Marxist party we need is one in which it would be possible for a Trotskyist faction or factions (or, for that matter, left/council communists, or genuine Kautskyites) to fight for their ideas, but not one which had a pre-commitment to Trotskyism; and I suggested that aspects of the Critique call created a danger of such a pre-commitment.

Comrades Matthew Jones and Hillel Ticktin have argued that by criticising Trotskyism I inevitably align myself with Stalinism and 'stages theory'. Comrade Barry Biddulph, on the other hand, argues that my position really is a form of Trotskyism, with the demands which I (and CPGB generally) argue are part of a minimum programme being really (Trotskyist) "transitional demands".

'Trotskyism' has three possible meanings. The first is its meaning in the common usage of those who are ignorant of the substantive political and theoretical arguments of organised and self-identified Trotskyists. In this sense 'Trotskyism' means (1) rejection of 'socialism in a single country' in favour of world revolution; and (2) opposition to the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, both in the USSR and similar states, and in the trade unions and other parts of the workers' movement, in favour of radical workers' democracy and accountability from below.

In this sense I am a Trotskyist and so are the comrades who founded the CPGB (Weekly Worker); and, indeed, the comrades were already 'Trotskyists' when, as The Leninist, they were explicit opponents of Trotskyism in favour of arguments close to those of the Leningrad Opposition led by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Real Stalinists, of course, called the Leningraders 'Trotskyites', and within the terms of this common-usage meaning of Trotskyism, they were right to do so. Similarly, when George Galloway called the SSP 'Trots' he meant that they favoured some degree of internal democracy in their party and the accountability of elected representatives.

The second sense is the meaning which I have used in criticising Trotskyism, and which Alex Callinicos used in his (very different) criticisms in his book Trotskyism (1990). In this sense 'Trotskyism' is the body of political and theoretical ideas which is common to the organised movement which Trotsky established, the Fourth International founded in 1938 and its predecessor groups from 1931. In this sense 'Trotskyism' means the following:

(1) the theses of the first four Congresses of Comintern, including the '21 conditions' and the split with social democracy and the 'centrists'; soviet power; revolutionary defeatism; the leading role of the party and its 'Bolshevik' character; the united front policy, including the anti-imperialist front; and the workers' government slogan;

(2) world revolution, as opposed to socialism in one country and 'peaceful coexistence';

(3) permanent revolution in pre-capitalist and colonial countries, as opposed to separate stages of capitalist and workers' revolutions;

(4) defence of the USSR as a historic conquest of the working class, combined with the struggle for political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy;

(5) rejection of the Stalinist 'people's front' policy of subordinating the working class in an alliance with the 'national' or 'democratic' bourgeoisie; and

(6) the idea that the extreme crisis of capitalism (the 'death agony') means that the division of the socialist programme into maximum and minimum programmes is superseded, and hence the 'transitional programme'.

In this sense I am no longer a Trotskyist - but nor is comrade Ticktin. In reality, of course, almost the whole of the self-identified Trotskyist movement has abandoned at least part of this political platform.

The parts which remain - generally the party conception, the permanent revolution and the 'united front' in some form, and anti-imperialism - remain in a very dilute way. Comrades recruited into Trotskyist organisations since the mid-1970s have rarely read the documents which originally defined their political tendency, and the older comrades who read them in their youth have usually forgotten what they said. What remains is a tradition and a 'common sense' which is almost immune to contrary evidence, as, for example, in Dave Craig's (or Alan Thornett's, or Alex Callinicos's) concept of the united front.

The purpose of my long series on strategy (and also of my shorter 2004 series on imperialism) is to try to get comrades to think seriously about the origins of their present 'common sense' ideas of this sort. As such, it inevitably criticises 'Trotskyism'.

Comrade Ticktin argues that these ideas cannot properly be associated with Trotsky. Certainly in their modern, dilute, 'common sense' form this is in some sense true. But their origin in the Trotskyist movement is in documents Trotsky wrote or drafted and - in some cases - put to the vote. And it is in choices Trotsky made, after he had in 1933 denounced the Comintern as dead for the purposes of world revolution, about who to work with and who to split with in the western workers' movement. Building a movement on the platform of the six points listed above was Trotsky's choice in the 1930s. If he had set out to build a movement taking out some of these commitments it would almost certainly have had broader appeal. It is therefore perfectly fair to call adherents of this organised political movement 'Trotskyists', as many call themselves.

Trotskyism as theory

The third possible sense - and the sense I think comrades Ticktin and Jones are using - is to speak of 'Trotskyism' in the same sense in which it is very common to speak of 'Marxism': that is, not as a concrete political project, but as a body of theoretical ideas.

Here the problem can be put as follows. Kautsky's reinterpretation of his ideas in and after 1914-18, turning them into a clear vehicle for support for the existing capitalist state, and the futility of this project faced with the rise of fascism, led to the destruction of the whole Marxist centre tendency by the end of World War II. But at the same time, the 'theory' of socialism in one country is inconsistent with Marx's analysis of the development in capitalism of a world economy. Also, the 'theories' of the strategic worker-peasant alliance and of revolution 'by stages' - at least as it was interpreted after the death of Lenin - are both flatly incompatible with the fundamental claim of Marxism that classes tend to pursue their own interests, which is essential to Marx's critique of political economy, as much as it is to general historical materialism.

But the Bukharinite and Leningrader oppositions were committed to these three theories as much as the real Stalinist core was. The defence of the fundamentals of Marxism as theory was thus reduced by the late 1920s to the Left Opposition of Trotsky, Rakovsky and others, and the left and council communists; and of the Left Opposition only Trotsky survived. Further, the Stalinist regime imposed by police measures (both in the USSR and in the communist parties) a series of further revisions of Marxist theory, especially on the state, on the family and on the nation, to back its false claim that the USSR was 'socialist'. There is thus no non-Trotskyist (in a theoretical sense) Marxism.

I propose this interpretation rather tentatively because it is an interpretation of what the comrades have said much more briefly rather than supported by direct quotation. But the comrades are, of course, at liberty to correct what I have said if it is a misinterpretation.

If it is a correct interpretation, it leaves out the left and council communists, whose ideas could still be true, since they were in no way committed to socialism in one country, stages, or the worker-peasant alliance. If anything, writers in this tradition have (in my view correctly) criticised Trotsky for making inappropriate concessions to these ideas. Now, of course, from the 1930s the left and council communists had much less global political impact than the Trotskyists, and they remain today much weaker as an organised movement; but this is to move from the terrain of theory to that of political projects, in which case we would have to return to the arguments of Trotskyism as a political platform (above). From the late 1960s on, moreover, the theory of left and council communist writers has been reprinted and translated and has had considerable impact on ideas current on the left.

Equally, the fact that the Kautskyans collapsed into state loyalism (and eventually collapsed altogether) does not in itself mean that Kautsky's and Martov's Marxist objections to the course followed by the early Soviet regime - or those of Luxemburg and Levi - can be taken to be false theory. Kautsky and Martov may have been wrong for reasons which do not prove Lenin, Trotsky and their co-thinkers right. As long as the line of Soviet-defencism and political revolution seemed plausible, the rest of Trotsky's arguments about the early Soviet state were also plausible. Once this line collapsed in 1989-91, it ought to have called into question also the theoretical arguments at least of Terrorism and communism and of The permanent revolution (as opposed to those of Results and prospects).

Moreover, to the extent that authors defend the central theses of Stalinism - 'socialism in one country', the party monolith, 'stages theory', 'national roads' and the people's front - they cannot be Marxists, because these theses are inconsistent with the fundamentals of Marxism. But it is possible for an author to be personally committed to these theories, and yet to write Marxist theory which ignores their implications. This becomes truer, the more the field of the author's work is distanced from the immediate needs of political engagement. Thus, for example, the work of Hill on the English bourgeois revolution, of Hilton on medieval peasant struggles, or of de Ste Croix (Class struggle in the ancient Greek world) are genuine contributions to Marxist theory in spite of being written by authors who were politically Stalinists or fellow-travellers.

Behind this is a more fundamental point. Because Stalinism took its political legitimacy from being a distortion of Marxism, the 'official' communist movement produced editions and translations of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The editorial selections and translations were to some extent censored, and the note reflected the official doctrine; but the texts were not so censored as to prevent the persistent reader from going behind the official doctrine to see that it was actually a parody of what it claimed to represent. The result has been a good deal of 'half-critical' production of one sort or another; and this, too, can pose real Marxist theoretical questions. This possibility of reading Marx and Lenin against the official doctrine is also at least part of the root of The Leninist and hence of the Weekly Worker.

The net result is that it would be no more appropriate for a future Marxist party to make a pre-commitment to theoretical Trotskyism than to make a pre-commitment to political Trotskyism, the Trotskyism of the organised Trotskyist movement. We should make clear political commitments to workers' class independence, to democracy and to proletarian internationalism, thus rejecting the political line of Stalinism. Within this framework it is possible to debate the theoretical questions.


Comrade Biddulph's second letter contains two points about the 'What sort of Marxist party?' issue. The first is the claim that what I say about the minimum programme is both a two-stage schema (and an inconsistent version of "Steve Freeman's two-stage dogma") and involves transitional demands unrealisable under capitalism, displaying "residual Trotskyism". The second is that I follow the later Trotsky in idealising Bolshevism, as against the correct criticisms made by Trotsky and Luxemburg in 1904.

The second point can be disposed of quickly. It is just false history, in the version shared by the cold war academy and the Stalinists. I refer comrade Biddulph to my review of Lars T Lih's Lenin rediscovered,10 to Lih's book itself, and to the substantial literature on the history of the Bolshevik Party published since Liebman's Leninism under Lenin (1975) - by no means all of it by Trotskyists or authors who began in any way sympathetic to Bolshevism.

Transitional programme

The first point involves misunderstandings both of Kautsky's (and Lenin's) 'maximum/minimum programme' and of Trotsky's 'transitional programme'.

The 'maximum programme' is communism: that is, the complete disappearance of private property and social classes and the supersession and withering away of the state, the nation and the family (as an economic and legal institution - we do not claim to predict how in practice people in communist society will organise their sex lives).

The 'minimum programme' is the programme of the immediate tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or of a workers' government. Its individual demands are consistent with capitalism in two senses. The first is that the full implementation of the programme could leave the law of value still partially operating: that is, it is a programme for an 'NEP' or mixed economy under workers' political power. The reason for this approach is that we do not live in a world in which social classes have been wholly reduced to capitalist corporations and wage-earners, and it is not Marxist policy to create a Cambodian 'Year Zero' or Chinese 'Cultural Revolution' or to carry out forced collectivisations. Between the overthrow of capitalist political power and the full development of communism there will, therefore, be a substantial period of transition.

The second is that individual demands of the programme could be implemented under capitalist political rule, so that we can sensibly agitate for these demands as reforms; if the implementation of individual demands was achieved, it would not overthrow capitalist political rule, but would merely weaken the capitalists and strengthen the workers.

Comrade Biddulph argues that two aspects in particular of the demands that I have mentioned are 'transitional' in the sense that they could not be contained by capitalism: the demands for democratic republican defence policy: ie, trade union and political rights in the armed forces, universal military service, the right to bear arms and a militia; and the election and recallability of public officials and restriction of their salaries to a workers' wage.

The first of these examples is just stupid. Trade union rights in the military are, or were until recently, present in the Federal Republic of Germany; Switzerland operates a universal militia; the right to bear arms is entrenched in the US constitution. I do not think that comrade Biddulph will claim that the capitalists have been overthrown in any of these countries. The second has more substance to it. But again, it should be remembered that it was not until recently that the British state paid members of parliament at all, and rights of recall are found in some US state constitutions.

Of course, the systematic implementation of the minimum programme as a whole would amount to the overthrow of capitalist political rule. In this sense it, and everything we do, is indeed 'transitional': about the transition from capitalism to socialism.

But Trotsky's 'Transitional programme' meant something different, in two ways. In the first place, it rests on the claim that there needs to be a bridge between the minimum programme and the maximum programme of the immediate communist reorganisation of society. The centrepiece demands of the transitional programme - the sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours - amount to a proposal not for a transitional regime under workers' political power, but for the immediate abolition of the law of value. As such, they point precisely towards forced collectivisations, 'Cultural Revolution' and 'Year Zero', however much Trotsky himself would have denied it.

Secondly, the 'Transitional programme' was to be a "bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution". In this respect, the "present demands" prioritised are trade union demands, and the strategy is one of turning the trade union struggle into the struggle for power: the general strike strategy. Demands for the defence of the existing liberal-constitutional regimes against fascism and repression are found in the programme; but positive demands for the extension of political democracy, such as were present in the programmes put forward by Marx and Engels, and those of the parties of the Second International, are absent.

One might put it a little differently by saying that the line is that of Rabochoye Dyelo at the time of the 1902-03 polemics in the Russian movement (see my review of Lih) or of Part II of Trotsky's 1904 Our political tasks.11 These approaches were categorically disproved for Russia by the course of events in 1905 and 1917, and have been disproved for the 'west' by a series of experiences since then, discussed in my strategy series. The workers' movement needs to learn to think politically, not to be led by the nose from pure trade union struggles to workers' councils, and from there to 'All power to the workers' councils'.

Comrade Biddulph claims that I make the CPGB's view on this question a precondition for unity. This is flatly false. In my view the condition for effective Marxist unity is the three general principled commitments I outlined at the beginning - nothing more and nothing less.

My arguments here and in my previous articles on this issue are that a project for a Marxist party is more likely to succeed if it does not rehash ideas which are the common ground of the Trotskyist, and the less formally Stalinist among the Maoist and left 'official' communist sects, but, on the contrary, thinks in terms of the struggle for extreme democracy having strategic centrality.