Bringing about a Marxist party

Why must we go through the existing left rather than appealing directly to 'the class'? Mike Macnair explains

In my article last week I replied to several criticisms of my response to the Critique call for a campaign for a Marxist party, which concerned what sort of Marxist party we should be aiming for (Weekly Worker September 14). This week I return to the question of how to get one.

In my July 13 article I argued that this required going "where the Marxists are", and fighting for the unity of the existing Marxists (meaning those who self-identify as Marxists). Matthew Jones characterised this as "chasing the sects, principally the SWP, and taking part in Respect, with a sideline in the CNWP and so on", and commented that "most Marxists in Britain have long since left or been thrown out of these organisations"; he claimed that "the overwhelming majority of comrades who are seriously thinking about Marxism are not in these outfits" (Letters, July 20).

Barry Biddulph said that I was "not supporting Critique" because I thought "the only way forward to a Marxist party is to reform the SWP or relate to the SWP membership, where most of the Marxists are, even if Respect is heading in the opposite direction to the route to a Marxist party" (Letters, July 27).

I responded to this in my August 3 article with two fairly concrete points. The first is that I am sceptical of the idea that there are thousands of unorganised Marxists out there awaiting the call; and, on the other hand, in spite of the god-awful politics of the Socialist Workers Party/Respect, Socialist Party in England and Wales/Campaign for a New Workers' Party and Scottish Socialist Party, many militants in the ranks of these organisations - including much of their leaderships - do think of themselves as Marxists and have a rudimentary and deformed commitment to Marxist political ideas. The second was that the fundamental reason for the splintering of the far left into '57 varieties' is that comrades are unwilling to be in minorities, think that talking to other leftists is a waste of time and that we should go to the uncorrupted masses rather than 'the sects'. The result has been, every time, to produce another sect.

Comrade Biddulph responded on August 10. Two of comrade Biddulph's points concern the 'what sort of party' issue, and I replied to them in my article last week. His third point, addressed to the present question, is that I am still influenced by Ernest Mandel and as a result am "just an advisor to the Socialist Workers Party leadership": ie, to put it in more conventional 'orthodox Trotskyist' terms, I am a Pabloite.

Even more than the issues discussed last week, this may at first sight appear to be a micro-question concerning sect arcana. But it is not. The 1953 split in the Trotskyist 'Fourth International' which gave us the concept of 'Pabloism' was, to a considerable extent, about the same issue reflected in comrade Biddulph's criticisms of my articles. Is it worth trying to work - at least partially - together with existing organised groups whose politics are very bad, and arguing directly against their arguments? Or is this 'liquidationism' and 'becoming an advisor to the Stalinists'? This question is much bigger and more practical than the history of the Trotskyist movement, or for that matter than comrade Biddulph's individual arguments.

The issue involves an immediate concrete practical problem: suppose we found a Marxist party - or even an organised campaign for one - what would it do about the other left groups? To tackle this problem requires a theoretical understanding of why we need a party.

Tasks of a party

Imagine for the moment that the Labour Party and all the 57 varieties of groups to its left did not exist, and that a few of us got together to form a Marxist party - one committed to class-political independence, radical democracy and internationalism. Under such conditions comrade Biddulph's argument that numbers do not matter (Letters, July 20) would be perfectly valid. But the question would still arise: what should such a party do, beyond announcing its existence?

The answer is summed up in the old tag: 'Educate, agitate, organise'. A Marxist party would conceive itself as making the link between the spontaneous tendency of the working class to create organisations for its immediate self-defence (trade unions, tenants' associations, cooperatives and so on) and the body of ideas (a Marxist programme) which projects this tendency forward as a global alternative to capitalist rule.

To make this link requires, first, propaganda (many ideas to few people) and education (developing members' and sympathisers' ability to manipulate information and the techniques of argument in order to reach their own conclusions about new or debated questions). The central necessity is a party press, because it is perfectly illusory to suppose that the capitalist-owned press (or any other press) will give Marxists a 'fair crack of the whip'. A party press means not just a central party paper and web materials, but also (to the extent that we grow) local and sectoral publications (whether papers or simple leaflets, workplace bulletins and so on), 'satellite' magazines, theoretical journals and encouraging party authors to produce books, pamphlets, plays "¦ Propaganda and education also take the form of discussions at local and national party meetings, and individual discussions between members and non-members.

Agitation is about addressing wider audiences with fewer ideas: selected issues from the party programme, which concerns questions of wide public (or local, or sectoral) discussion and concern. A successful agitation may result in a partial victory (like getting rid of the poll tax); but an agitation can still be successful if it merely gets across the idea that something is undesirable or desirable, and that 'The Marxist party are the people who oppose X, or support Y'. Thus green agitation has been pretty successful in getting across the idea that human-produced global warming is undesirable, and slightly less effective - but still successful - in getting across the idea that the greens are the people who are serious about doing something about it.

Organising at first sight means the party getting its own act together - recruiting members, raising money, setting up branches and sectoral fractions, establishing an effective internal division of labour, and so on. But it also has a much wider sense of participating in and assisting the tendency of the larger workers' movement to organise itself (trade unions, and so on) and positively promoting this tendency and within it promoting the idea of political class self-organisation. As a party, Marxists stand for workers' self-organisation as the basic ground of an alternative to capitalist rule.

This may sound a bit abstract, but in practice is something familiar to most activists: basic trade union work including the routine of meetings, dealing with individual cases, 'campaigns' (ie, agitation) round single issues (whether national, local or sectoral), attempts to build in the localities (whether through electoral campaigning or otherwise), workers' education activities and so on.

The existing movement

Now put the existing left back into the picture. As I said in my August 3 article, this includes "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 Communist Party of Britain 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."

From the point of view of the tasks of a party we should go well beyond these numbers. Tenant activists and some other forms of local campaigners; people involved in workers' education; some (not all) of the activists in some (not all) single-issue campaigns and 'social movements'; radical artists; unaffiliated Marxist theoretical writers, and no doubt others not listed here. These are all engaged in doing in an unorganised, imperfectly organised or merely locally organised way things which a Marxist party would need to do or be involved in doing.

Now suppose that we set up a new party on a Marxist programme counterposed to the existing movement. Perhaps not a party counterposed to the trade unions, but counterposed at least to its politically organised components: the Labour Party, 'Stalinism' (ie, the 'official communist', Maoist and Castroite sects and their peripheries) and 'the sects' (ie, the existing Trotskyist groups and the much smaller left and council communist ones, and their peripheries).

Neither the fact that the rest of the organised left exists nor the fact that the new party is counterposed to this left will alter one iota the objective tasks of a Marxist party which I have just discussed on the assumption that no other workers' party exists. It merely means that because the new party is counterposed to the existing left, it will do its work in competition with the existing left.

This would not be the case if it was really true that (as is frequently alleged by one group against another - most sharply by the Independent Working Class Association) the existing left ignores the working class or the workers' movement in favour of something else; or if it was really true that the existing movement consisted of 'sects' in the same sense as the Owenites and similar utopian socialist groups of the 1840s. But it is not true. If you are a trade union activist or work in housing, health or education campaigns, you will meet the existing organised left. Go on the knocker on the working class housing estates, and you will meet at least Labourites; in reality, every left group which makes any attempt to stand in elections will attempt to target the working class districts in particular.

Practical problem

At this point we encounter the practical problem. It is not merely that there are other groups: it is that there are numerous other groups which (sometimes fraudulently, but more commonly in severely mistaken ways) stand for working class political independence, and claim to be Marxist.

The result is that the hypothesised new Marxist party will spend a great deal of its time saying the same thing, or very similar, as the other groups. We agree, for example, on building trade unions, on defeating anti-union laws, on supporting strike action. Most of us agree on opposition to imperialist adventures overseas. Many groups are in principle for Marx's critique of political economy. And so on. To the extent that the groups say the same or similar things in competition with each other, there are two negative results.

The first is duplication of effort, leading to a less effective division of labour and less effective practical work. This is mainly obvious in the character of the papers and journals of the several groups (including the Weekly Worker!). The most acute case is political economy, which the Critique appeal quite properly stresses. The problem is that serious political-economic analysis involves the use of masses of economic data. And these data are seriously intractable, because of the extent to which state and academic public aggregate economic statistics are shaped by marginal utility theories. Not even the SWP, currently the largest left group, has the resources on its own to organise the collective work that is needed. If political economy is the most acute problem, similar points could be made about many other topics.

The second is reduced impact of Marxist ideas among workers. The working class as a class seeks unity and is suspicious of splits, precisely because of those characteristics which make working class rule a potential alternative to capitalism: namely, that the working class lacks individual property in the major means of production, and hence needs to organise unity in action in order to fight for its interests. It is necessary to fight to overcome the idea that this need for unity requires ideological uniformity and the suppression of dissent. But to the extent that workers are suspicious of multiple organisations competing on very similar messages, this is a correct judgment.

It is, of course, possible to find a niche where no-one else is working, and recruit young people under the pretence that your group is all that there is. This is how the Workers Revolutionary Party recruited via its Young Socialists front and how the Militant Tendency built itself in the Labour Party Young Socialists. It is why the local relationship of forces is frequently more favourable to the Socialist Workers Party in smaller towns, where it often is the major group to the left of Labour, than in the larger cities, where it is hard to do any political work without recognising the existence of other groups. But, as soon as comrades from such groups begin to do serious work in the trade unions, the pretence falls down.

Alternatively, it is possible to 'bend the stick' to exaggerate your differences with other organisations. This was the policy of the Spartacists from the early 1970s and since the early 1980s has been the policy of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. In truth, this does not overcome the problem. In the first place it involves telling falsehoods. Secondly, the pretence is easily seen through: however much the AWL may want to separate itself from the "fake left" or "kitsch left", those outside its ranks see it as a splinter of the left (apart from leftists well-informed about differences between the groups, who in their majority see the AWL as pro-imperialist). A group can only escape from this problem of being identified as a splinter group of the left by actually abandoning its leftist politics altogether, like the LaRouchists (a US far-right group of Trotskyist origin).

Why the 57 varieties?

Why is the self-identified Marxist left so splintered? The answer to the question, 'What should we do about it?', depends on the explanation. If a bridge falls down because someone planted a bomb on it or it was hit by a meteorite, we might rebuild it just as it was. If it falls down because of a design flaw, we should redesign it.

It is tolerably clear that there is an intimate connection between the splintering of the left and bureaucratic centralism. If we go back through the history, the large majority of the splits result from expulsions; a substantial minority from comrades walking out because the monolithic constraints of 'the line' meant that they were effectively silenced; and only rather a small minority because minorities thought the existing organisation was a waste of space and they could do better on their own.

Conversely, it is perfectly illusory to suppose that we could have a united organisation which could include, for example, people with the views of the CPGB majority and of its critics on the Israel-Palestine question without at a minimum the degree of openness and freedom of factions which the CPGB attempts to practise.

Several of the comrades associated with the Democratic Socialist Alliance have argued in substance that the problem is the ill will of the leaders of 'the sects', CPGB included. The substance of the argument is that the leaders are defending their own petty interests in employment by the organisations they lead, or in their personal status and control of them; and it is for this reason that they 'put the interests of their own organisation ahead of those of the movement as a whole'.

This purely subjective account is problematic. It can hardly be said, for example, that Alex Callinicos's participation in the rotten leadership of the SWP's bureaucratic control-freakery is driven by his personal interest, even in being a big fish in a small pond: as a full professor at a UK university with an extensive list of books to his name, he is a medium to large sized fish in a much bigger career pond. In reality, it is clear that subjective commitment to 'socialism from below' is not enough: there is an objective dynamic which supports bureaucratism and hence splits.

But this argument from the interests of the leaders is not new and - without an institutional approach to solving the problem - has disastrous political implications. Robert Michels' Political parties was originally published in 1911. Ex-leftist Michels argued, from study of the German Social Democratic Party, that leaders even of a radical-democratic socialist party like the SPD inherently tended to pursue their own interests as leaders, and that there was no solution to this problem, because it is inherent in the mass scale of modern society. Modern society thus displayed a wholly objective "iron law of oligarchy". The meaning of the "iron law of oligarchy" became clearer when Michels, in later life, gave political support to Mussolini and then Hitler.

One alternative to the Michels view, which I have argued in previous articles, which the CPGB more generally has argued using slightly different terminology, and which Trotsky and others argued - partially - in the work of the Russian Left Opposition, is that there are institutional choices which can be made about party organisation which tend to subordinate the leaders to the members and through this to the class more generally.

This view admits an objective tendency towards bureaucratism, but argues that it is possible to fight against it effectively by institutional choices (freedom of factions and open debate, freedom of information and communication in the party, etc). Like a badly designed bridge, the SPD and later the parties of the Comintern collapsed into bureaucratism through a combination of objective dynamics and ('subjective') mistakes in the face of those dynamics; and the same is true of the bulk of the left today.

It is because of this view that in my July 13 article and again on August 3 I emphasised the importance of certain concrete questions about party organisation - on which the Critique call had remained silent.


An alternative view is that associated especially with Rosa Luxemburg. This is that, in the absence of active involvement of the mass of the working class, bureaucratism is inevitable. If there is a mass forward movement of the class, it will tend to subordinate the leaders to itself and overcome bureaucratism.

This view had some apparent plausibility before 1919. It was falsified by the course of the German revolution and has been repeatedly falsified by revolutionary crises and mass strike movements since then. Far from overcoming the problem of bureaucratism - or, for that matter, that of a divided workers' movement - such an entry of the masses into political life sharpens the problem and pushes forward the existing political organisations of the class, including ones which have been utterly useless in the immediately preceding period (like the Portuguese Socialist Party in 1974 or the Cuban Stalinist Popular Socialist Party in 1959) and also including 'the sects': ie, Maoist and Trotskyist groups, which tend to grow in proportion to their existing size.

Hillel Ticktin has put forward an alternative, wholly objective explanation. This is that between the 1940s and 1989-91 capital managed the working class through its relationship to the Stalinist regimes and, as part of this, its relations with the social democratic and trade union leaderships. During this period Stalinism, with the support of the capitalist regimes, had the effect of politically expropriating Marxism. It was therefore impossible to build a genuinely Marxist party and any attempt to do so resulted merely in the production of sects. Now that Stalinism has fallen, and after the first period of capitalist triumphalism in the 1990s, the objective block on building a genuinely Marxist party has gone and this should again become possible.

The difficulty with this argument is that both the problem of bureaucratic dictatorships in workers' organisations and that of weak and splintered socialist political parties started before the rise of Stalinism. It is only necessary to look at the comments of Marx and Engels on Lassalle, Hyndman and Bakunin to see both. Before World War I and the Russian Revolution - let alone Stalinism or the cold war - the Anglo-American pattern was of strong trade unions and weak and splintered socialist political parties. In 1909 Kautsky argued in Sects or class parties that this reflected the early development of industry and hence persistence of 'artisanal' politics in Britain and the US. The course of history since then implies that it was rather the consequence of the more complete development of capitalist politics in Britain and the US: in this Britain and the US showed to other countries the image of their future.

Comrade Ticktin's argument is nonetheless half right. Under the conditions of the cold war and the post-war boom it was not a rational choice for workers to fight for the replacement of the regimes that governed them, because these regimes were capable of delivering at least slight improvements in everyday living conditions. Under present conditions, in contrast, promoting reformist coalition projects within the framework of loyalty to the existing capitalist state and its constitution is irrational, because, even if successful, it leads only to new attacks and further weakening of the workers' movement.

The attempt to rebuild the Labour Party or to build a new Labourite party is precisely to fail to face up to what has changed since 1979. It is a good example of something Lenin and Trotsky (more than once) wrote: that "consciousness lags behind being". They forgot to add that in a certain sense it most "lags behind being" in conscious, self-identified activists of the workers' movement. To understand why is also to understand why Luxemburg's view turned out to be wrong; and provides a key to the struggle to overcome the problem.

Consciousness and 'vanguard'

The nature of consciousness is a big debate. But it can be said with a high degree of confidence that human consciousness involves the relation of memory to the immediate and further future: that is, taking decisions about how to act on the basis of projecting the lessons of the past contained in memory, whether these are formalised as theory or mere gut instincts.

Collective consciousness therefore involves institutional memory: state, parties, educational institutions and so on; for the workers' movement, parties, unions and so on. But these institutions are necessarily composed of individuals actively involved in them; and the institutional memory takes the form partly of written party programmes and rules, partly of the memories of these individuals.

Under feudalism and in the early stages of capitalist development all of the propertied classes, down to peasants (including villeins) and master-craftsmen, were involved to some extent in active political life, if only in the form of attending manorial and borough courts. The wholly unpropertied - mainly women and youth - were (largely) excluded.

In capitalism, economic development tends to cause growth of the unpropertied in the form of the proletariat and to break down the basis of the formal legal boundary between master-craftsmen and farmers on the one hand and women and 'servants' on the other. To create and reproduce its political monopoly, capital has to have non-legal mechanisms of political exclusion.

The primary form of these mechanisms is the "dull compulsion of economic relations". In one aspect this ensures that workers either have little free time or are excluded and pauperised by unemployment. Either makes it hard to be politically active. In another, it takes the form of 'consumerism'. From this aspect, politics ceases to be the common mass experience it was for peasants and artisans, and becomes a consumer good, supplied by professional and semi-professional politicians who offer various competing 'brands'.

To achieve any of its aims, the working class needs to organise. In order to organise under capitalism, it needs - outside the immediate conditions of a mass strike - its own politicians. It is this broad layer of working class professional and semi-professional politicians which I called "the activists" earlier in this article, and which can also be called 'the vanguard'. But 'the vanguard' is misleading if it suggests that the working class politicians/activists are always ahead of the broad masses.

The dynamic towards bureaucracy - and towards splits - therefore grows naturally out of capitalist politics - not, as Michels argued, out of "mass society", nor, as Kautsky argued, out of backwardness. Because capitalism politically expropriates the broad masses in favour of a professional politician caste, and because capitalist politics functions as a system of competing 'firms' of professional politicians which are political 'brands' (and also personal 'brands', like Blair and Cameron, Galloway and Sheridan), there is an objective dynamic towards workers' parties copying this pattern.

Because capitalism politically expropriates the broad masses, these masses have very limited political memory: they have no continuous past political experience to draw on when confronted with new political events. Political memory is concentrated in the activists. The result is that, when the masses do enter the political stage, they are for quite a long time forced to rely on the existing activists and their institutional memory. This is why Luxemburg's view turned out to be wrong.

But memory can also be a trap: "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living". If there is a genuine change in the situation we face, which does not correspond to what has gone before - or even to what has gone before within our memory - memory may radically mislead us. It is for this reason that "consciousness lags behind", and for this reason that this "lag behind" is in a certain sense concentrated in the activists, just as political memory is.

Fight to win the activists

In the first part of this article I have given highly practical reasons why any new Marxist party should fight for united action - as far as possible - with the political organisations of the existing layer of activists from the trade union militants leftward. The second part has given theoretical reasons for supposing that this layer cannot be bypassed - because it is not merely a set of miscellaneous groups of fools and knaves, but grows out of the objective dynamics of workers' struggle under capitalism. Its disastrous errors partly arise from the objective dynamics of capitalist politics, and partly reflect the tendency of consciousness to lag behind objective developments.

If we are to fight against the dynamic of capitalist politics towards competing firms and brands, our starting point has to be the elementary decision taken by every trade union member when they join a union led by people with whom they disagree, or participate in a strike they voted against: that divergence of political opinion need not prevent unity in action.

That choice implies in practice being willing to fight as an organised minority - with its own public expression - within the groups and movements where the majority of the existing activists, and in particular those activists who identify themselves as Marxists, are: however bureaucratic the regime and however god-awful the politics. If you are not willing to fight as a public minority within such movements, but prefer to pursue the 'uncorrupted' masses, you will unavoidably find yourself creating a sect, and one which will sooner or later itself become unwilling to tolerate dissent and thus generate yet more splits.

That has been the fate of most of the 'anti-Pabloite', 'orthodox Trotskyist' organisations which made the split of 1953, and of most of the organisations which, coming later, identified themselves with anti-Pabloism (like Workers Power). In this sense I am proud to be told by comrade Biddulph that I am "still influenced by Mandel" or "an adviser to the SWP leadership". It may be a smear, but it signifies that I am actually willing to fight for a Marxist party in the only way such a fight is really possible.