The call for a party

Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique, explains the thinking behind the November 4 conference to establish a Campaign for a New Marxist Party

Mike Macnair has produced a series of helpful articles on the call for a Marxist party and in the course of his argument has made clear both where the CPGB stands programmatically on the issue and what he thinks is required for such a call.

What the call is not

I would first like to make clear what our call for a Marxist party is not:

1. It is not a call to found a Marxist party today or tomorrow. That is clearly impossible.

Like many others we would like to see a genuine party - as opposed to a groupuscule or sect - with roots in the class, and that cannot be built quickly. Rather we are calling for the founding of a loose agglomeration of interested people and groupings who will exchange ideas and means of operation towards that goal.

2. It is not a call to found a party with a programme based on the transitional programme. Indeed no programme has been mentioned because we consider that the programme will emerge from the process of formation of such a party, however long it takes.

3. No exclusions of Marxists is proposed other than the opposition to the inclusion of Stalinists. The refusal to have Stalinists does not mean that individuals who agree with the limited founding principles cannot enter, but it does mean that no Stalinist faction will be tolerated and anti-Stalinism will be part of those founding principles. Such a ban is implicit in Mike's statement that socialism in one country is not Marxist. Insofar as Stalinists have a principle, that is their major statement and hence they are not Marxist, according to Mike. I agree.

Founding principles

The ending of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a semi-capitalist power has destroyed Stalinist power and appeal, but it has not entirely removed it as a destructive incubus on the socialist movement. No sane person can support a party which eulogises or plays down the mass slaughter, incarceration and atomisation of the people of the Soviet Union, let alone its patent economic failure. It remains the case today that many people regard socialism as necessarily undemocratic and inefficient, largely based on their view of the USSR. No party which claims to be democratic will even be taken as such if it does not openly and frequently condemn the USSR under Stalin, and China under Maoism, etc.

There is room for differing views of the nature of the USSR and why it took the course that it did. In principle, there is no reason why Bordigists, council communists, anti-Leninists, etc could not take part, in addition to the traditional far left. The only extra principle here is that all sides accept the legitimacy of everyone's views. There is no point in having one party in which the multitude of factions so hate each other that the party is paralysed. Mike Macnair argues strongly for a broad Marxist party to include Kautskyans, for instance, which is fair enough, but the idea itself is untested and it is unclear whether such a party could actually function and we would have to proceed step by step to see whether it would work.

The fact is that the only substantial section of the left which was neither ossified nor Stalinist was Trotskyist in one or other of the three senses produced by Mike Macnair. There may today be as many interpretations of Trotskyism as there are theorists, but that is no condemnation.

The essential doctrine associated with Trotsky - as opposed to other left currents which accepted the impossibility of socialism in one country - lay in the argument that the Bolsheviks were correct to take power in 1917 but that the failure of the world revolution left the Soviet working class stranded and a new social grouping took power in the Soviet Union. That new grouping then appropriated the surplus product in their own interest. There was a counterrevolution. That established the foundations of a theory of Stalinism, even if there are many varieties.

The importance of that paragraph lies in the question of the formulation of the founding principles of such a call. Mike is right to include the three aspects of working class control, democracy and internationalism, but the slogans are so broad that Tony Blair could sign up to them under the slogans of popular democracy and globalisation. True, Blair means something entirely different and Mike's principles lead to socialism, but they are open to misinterpretation and quite easily to a two-stage programme. Mike seems to rubbish a programme based on the single stage as Trotskyist.

Against the market and for socialism

It is not enough to talk of democracy, even though it is an absolute founding principle both for the new society and for the party. The fact is that any constitution can be subverted, as the USSR was subverted. We have to be clear that we stand clearly against the market and for a socialist society in which production is socialised and planned. No genuine socialist takes any other view in any case and there is no reason to keep our views secret.

We must stand clearly for a one-stage change to socialism not two or more stages in which we first get democracy and then socialism. That is a theoretical nonsense and implies that people will not understand a socialist programme. Worse still, it might lead to a dead end in which there are formal democratic institutions behind which the market rules.

There is a clear divergence between those who consider that the USSR changed because of the lack of democracy and those who argue that it was transformed because a new social group took power and they probably would have taken power whatever the constitutional provisions, given the impossibility of socialism in one country. The same would apply to any new 'socialist' country that was isolated. It may be that democracy would slow down the takeover sufficiently to allow the world revolution to catch up and that is a powerful argument, but it remains true that democracy is not enough of a slogan. Indeed democracy, in the loose sense of the term in which there is full control from below, can only come into existence if the working class is in power.

Mike's viewpoint appears to be one in which he gives particular credence to the category of bureaucratism. For him it is the reason for the degeneration of the German social democracy, the USSR and modern parties. In my view he is putting together apples and dogs as one category. There is no question that the SPD degenerated over time and one, but only one, of the symptoms was the increasing control of the bureaucracy in the party and the trade unions. Lenin was right when he argued that imperialism played a critical role in this respect. He argued that a new aristocracy of labour was responsible for the conservatism in the trade unions and the SPD.

Whether we agree with the exact location of the material reasons for the decline of Marxism in the SPD is irrelevant: the point is that bureaucratism resulted. In other words, the leadership tried to avoid democratic forms because they were afraid of the consequences. In the USSR, as I argued above, it was the rise of a new social group which took over the administration and so became a new ruling elite.

Mike's rejection of the history of the Comintern before Stalinism falls foul of the same problem. The failure of the revolution in the west was not due to the Comintern in itself, but due to a combination of accidental and necessary causes. Lenin's solution of imposing the 21 points, and so international discipline, on all parties proved fatal to the cause of revolution, but not because he was inherently anti-democratic or bureaucratic. It was a desperate situation, where capitalism had stabilised, but revolution remained possible. He, therefore, sought to use the only experienced leadership left - that of the Bolsheviks - and if he had lived or Trotsky had taken over in 1922, the world might have been very different. It was a choice between the movement of a class whose leaders had been executed, or otherwise removed, and imposing a leadership. As it turned out, it relied on Lenin or Trotsky directing the revolution, but Lenin was ill from 1922 and Trotsky was neutralised by the Stalinists. Bureaucratism is neither here nor there. Mike is imposing an all-powerful Hegelian idea, bureaucratism, on modern history. If he were a spontaneist, he would be consistent. Instead of seeing the real movement of history, he sees only the absence of democracy.

In modern times, the failure of the groups is not due to their alleged 'bureaucratism' or lack of democracy: rather their lack of democracy is a symptom of the real causes. With the greatest goodwill any initially democratic party would have turned into its opposite, given the conditions under which they were operating.

The fundamental barrier to the formation of a genuine mass left party in the period from 1927 onwards lay in the overwhelming dominance of Stalinism over the left. In the period of cold war, it was exceptionally difficult to hold out. The fact that Trotskyist groups survived at all is a victory of sorts. However, the task of survival is very different from the tasks that now face us. The problem with those groups is that the theory and practice of a marginalised politics cannot be transferred to a new period when the old barriers no longer exist. Because they continue with the old forms and the old form of politics, they appear to have lost their senses. As I put it earlier, if you knock your head against a brick wall for long enough your brain gets damaged. If you understand that it is a brick wall, you do not knock your head against it and when it comes down you can see your chance.

Mike Macnair speaks of an inclusiveness which excludes the Trotskyists, but somehow includes working in their organisations, rather than going out to the thousands of unorganised individuals. It makes no sense. It also makes no sense in that there really is no substantial number of Marxists outside the groups who do not accept the particular importance of Trotskyism, in the widest sense. He wants a Leninist party and he also wants a party with the currents expelled by Lenin. He rejects the actual history of the communist party before Stalinism but wants the party.

The concept of the party towards which we are working is both old and new. It is an old concept in being Marxist, in wanting to have a mass, but leading, party of the working class, but new in that its shape will somehow have to accommodate numerous viewpoints and centres of influence and yet be a disciplined party. Democracy in this context will have to be genuine democracy, not formal democracy where the leader and leadership is there for life, elected year after year in elections without any meaning.

Given the tremendous stress on democracy in popular parlance, given the patently undemocratic nature both of Stalinist regimes and of most left parties and groups, it is understandable that some people would want democracy to figure as the primary demand. This can be accommodated as long as it is clear that the socialist goal appears as the immediate goal, not a secondary issue following on democracy.


To sum up, there is no intention to found yet another sect, or to base ourselves on the transitional programme - or any other existing programme for that matter. Certainly a Marxist programme has to be based on Marx's precept that the working class is in capitalism but not of capitalism and hence it is the task of the working class to emancipate mankind in order to emancipate itself. But it must also state clearly that this is the only struggle involved and there is no prior struggle - as for democracy or for a democratic, secular republic, for national liberation or whatever.

It is clear that these differences can be worked out. What is essential above all is that people attending the conference have the goodwill to go forward together in order to build a new, principled party. The people founding the party will have to establish the goals, the principles, the tactics and the strategy. The first task is to begin this process.

We do not object to the organised left leaving their organisations to join us, but we argue that the organised left are a tiny fraction of the thousands who regard themselves as Marxists.

The problem with the organised so-called left is that they are not Marxist. Their sectarianism is a result of their non-Marxism, not the other way around - such as their Trotskyism causing them to be sectarian or anything else. They are not Trotskyist in any real sense. The only two substantial groups are the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party. The SWP has forfeited its position as belonging to the left with the formation of Respect, while the Socialist Party has always been reformist.

There is not the faintest possibility that either of those parties will ever achieve any substantial growth on the left. What they might do if they move to the right, like the parties of Lyndon LaRouche and the Revolutionary Communist Party, is another matter.

It is true that there are dozens of other micro-parties on the left. Some are undemocratic, some are dogmatic, some have resident gurus behind a facade of democracy, and some have taken a particular text, tactic, strategy or doctrine as absolute and, unfortunately, most give the appearance of psychotics convinced that they are going to take over the world.

There is, therefore, no competition in the call for a Marxist party. Mike Macnair is right that we have to make a wide appeal and his reference to the SPD makes sense if correctly interpreted. We have to be careful, however, because the SPD was also the party of Bernstein, who is the spiritual father of modern social democracy up to and including Tony Blair; and also the party of Scheideman, Noske and Ebert, who supported World War I and are tainted with the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. However, Mike was probably thinking of the earlier SPD - perhaps the SPD of the Erfurt programme of 1890.

Mike raises the question of political work inevitably leading to competition/cooperation with the so-called left groups. We have to explore the exact nature of our political work. I would envisage us theorising the real reasons for the isolation of the left such as it exists and then finding out how to overcome it. The existing forms are clearly inadequate.

The concept of a Marxist party of many Marxist views is central to our call. The only limits are the ones enunciated above. Stalinism is excluded as non-Marxist, and two-stageism is rejected as the dishonest programme of the past. Our demands are for the working class to take power and introduce a socialist programme.

The party itself has to be democratic from top to bottom with the necessary constitution and rules to that effect. There can, however, be no illusions that a fully democratic party in an undemocratic capitalism is possible. For that reason, we have to introduce all necessary safeguards. This is not just to allow the party to operate properly, but also to demonstrate that socialists can have a genuinely democratic, functioning party.