Marxist party - now or never

Mike Macnair writes on this weekend's launch conference of the 'Campaign for a new Marxist party'

For the last few months we have been debating in these pages Critique's call for a conference to begin a campaign for a Marxist party. The conference is to be held on November 4, two days after this issue of the Weekly Worker comes out. It seems worth revisiting the fundamental question: why is a campaign for a Marxist party a good idea?

In previous articles I have argued that a Marxist party is distinguished from other sorts of 'socialist' or 'left' party by three very general fundamental principles:

l First, it stands for the idea that the working class, the social class dependent on the wage fund, should run society. It therefore, on the one hand, stands for the political organisation of the working class. On the other, it opposes political strategies which depend on the collaboration of opposed classes, like the 'people's front', 'rainbow coalition' or 'movement of movements' (three names for the same thing); and like green politics, islamic 'social justice' or catholic social theory.

l Second, it stands for extreme democracy, or democratic republicanism, both in the state and in the workers' movement. The basic principles are the accountability of both public officials and party, trade union, etc leaders to those they lead or exercise authority over; and the widest possible involvement in social (party, etc) decision-making.

These basic principles imply opposition both to top-down bureaucratic management of the sort found in the trade unions and Labour Party (including the Labour left) and leader-cults like those of Stalin and his imitators, and of Blair, Galloway, Sheridan and so on. They also imply that as far as possible no reliance is to be placed on the present, anti-democratic, capitalist-oligarchic state regime, and no political confidence is to be given to this regime.

l Third, it stands for international, working class solidarity: for the present international unity, organised as far as possible, and as far as possible in action, of the working class movement. In this respect it opposes all forms of nationalist strategy, 'socialism in one country', 'national roads to socialism' and so on - and with it, for example, immigration controls.

In doing so, it also offers an alternative to the sentimental pseudo-internationalism of the 'brotherhood of nations,' to promotion of the United Nations and the illusion that the British or US 'democracies' or the UN can serve the working class through 'humanitarian' bombs and invasions. Equally, fighting for international working class solidarity is an alternative to the idea that 'internationalism' requires the working class in oppressed countries to subordinate itself to the 'anti-imperialist struggle'.

Common ground

The discussion so far has added some points of clarification, both of what is (hopefully) common ground and of differences.

As to common ground, in the first place, the three principles above are not in themselves a sufficient basis for a party programme: what they are is orienting principles, which help us choose what sort of programme to adopt, but also to make more immediate political choices.

Secondly, the stress laid on democracy by the second principle does not mean that what the CPGB proposes is a variant on the 'democratic capitalism' or 'alternative economic and political strategy' of the British road to socialism. What is proposed is about how the working class can rule, not about making the rule of the British capitalist class 'nicer'.

Thirdly, and connected, emphasising working class rule, democracy and internationalism does not mean hiding socialist/communist commitment. CPGB comrades have argued that this is best expressed by starting from working people's needs rather than by an arbitrary commitment to nationalising some particular proportion of industry ('top 100 monopolies' and so on); but the underlying idea that the working class needs to lay collective hands on the means of production is not hidden. In our case, indeed, it is proudly present in our name as communists.

As to major and practically significant differences, it is plain that there is disagreement with comrade Barry Biddulph about how to express the idea of working class rule: in my view through the idea of the democratic republic; in comrade Biddulph's through that of workers' councils/soviets; and that this may express a deeper difference about working class strategy for attaining political power: in my view through the working class extending, deepening and democratising its own organisation and winning a political majority in the society, which may take a variety of concrete forms; in comrade Biddulph's (perhaps) only through a mass strike wave leading to the creation of workers' councils out of strike committees.

More immediately, there is a clear difference between CPGB comrades and comrades Biddulph, Matthew Jones and Hillel Ticktin about the next steps in campaigning for a Marxist party. In our view at present this involves a struggle primarily with and among the militants of the organised left who identify themselves as Marxists, to overcome the political errors which lead to their unwillingness to unite as a party on the basis of a Marxist programme. The other comrades seem to hold the view that the bulk of the organised left which self-identifies as Marxist is practically politically dead or marginal, and that the immediate task is therefore to build among those militants who are presently hostile to the organised left and among the broad mass of the working class directly. The differences in practical tasks posed by this may turn out to be so acute as to preclude more than very limited unity in action.

'Broader' unity?

Far more immediately fundamental than either of these differences, however, is the question: should we at present be aiming to build an openly Marxist party at all? Or should we be aiming to build some 'broader' unity on the basis of a non-Marxist programme?

Comrade Owen Jones of the John McDonnell leadership campaign has recently argued in these pages for building unity of the Labour left on the basis of a "real Labour" programme. Comrade Dave Craig has persistently argued that the idea of building a Marxist party is ultra-left: what we need now is a "republican socialist" party "along the lines of the SSP", which can unite Labourites and non-Labourites. The Scottish Socialist Party itself "united revolutionaries and reformists" on the basis that the part of its programme it has openly fought for is the nationalist and Labourite elements. The Socialist Alliance (mark two) similarly sought to unite "revolutionaries and reformists" on the basis that the part of its programme it openly fought for was to appear as "real Labour". The Socialist Workers Party sells Respect as an 'alliance of socialists and muslims' - also on the basis of a "real Labour" programme. The Socialist Party in England and Wales promotes the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, again offering "real Labour" politics.

Internationally, the loose coordination of the 'official communists' (next due to meet November 10-12 in Lisbon) unites parties whose common ground is programmes like the British road to socialism. The Mandelite Fourth International has for some years been promoting parties which "unite reformists and revolutionaries" on the basis of public programmes which are, frankly, pretty much like the British road. The SWP's International Socialist Tendency promotes Respect-type formations everywhere. SPEW's Committee for a Workers' International similarly promotes 'broad left' set-ups. And so on.

This year, next year "¦

Now it should be said right away that such formations can in the short term allow the self-identified Marxists to posture as leaders of and participants in much broader movements. That is, they can unless, like the SWP with Respect, their insistence on bureaucratic organisational control of the movement results in sterilising its potential for growth.

The problem is a little further down the road. The inner logic of unity between Marxists and Labourites and other advocates of a nationalist socialist policy, on the basis of a programme of better management of the capitalist state, eventually leads its proponents to give support to or even administer neoliberal policies: that is, to ... Blairism. We have seen this in the Lula government in Brazil; we have now seen it in Rifondazione Comunista's entry into Prodi's Unione government in Italy; we have seen it in the German Linkspartei.PDS's role in the 'red-red' regional coalition in Berlin.

The argument for shutting up about Marxist principles for the moment, in the hope of getting something marginally better than what exists, turns out in the US to imply shutting up about class politics in order to campaign for the Democrats and at that, to campaign for rightwing Democrats in the hope of getting the Republicans out.

In fact, comrade Owen Jones's arguments against the CPGB's programmatic 'ultra-leftism' on the McDonnell campaign can be turned with equal force against the McDonnell campaign itself: and have been by ex-Trotskyist Bob Pitt and by former Campaign Group chair Alan Simpson.

In the SSP the problem has proved to be a little different. The SSP bought into the leader-cultism of the capitalist media and capitalist politics. The lack of a fundamental orienting policy in relation to the existing state led the party towards a pro-statist purity politics in connection with prostitution. This policy, in turn, led both wings of the party leadership to panic in face of the News of the World's allegations against Tommy Sheridan. First Sheridan placed reliance on the state's courts to clear his name, at the expense of destroying the name of the party itself and those of its leaders who opposed him; now his opponents have come to place their hopes of their names being cleared in the state's police and courts, at the expense of Sheridan and his supporters being jailed for perjury. In the meantime the high hopes placed in the SSP have been exposed as illusions.

The underlying idea of 'broad unity' is that we should postpone fighting openly for Marxist politics for the sake of 'something better now'. But postpone fighting for Marxist politics for how long? The answer turns out to be that 'broad unity' parties and movements with left Labourite and similar programmes do not create better conditions for Marxists to fight for Marxist politics. They create worse conditions for Marxists to fight for Marxist politics because the Marxists water down or even bury their politics. The answer to the question 'This year, next year, sometime, never?' turns out to be that if it's not this year, it will be never.

'United front'

Opponents of presently fighting for a Marxist party accuse us of not understanding the Communist International's policy on the united front. Comintern argued that communists need to fight to win the masses; and that in order to do so they needed to show that the right wing were the splitters, not the communists. They could do this by offering unity in action in particular struggles and on the basis of immediate demands, provided that the communists retained freedom of criticism. The highest form of the united front was the campaign for a workers' government: that is, a government of workers' parties, without capitalist representatives, on the basis of a programme of immediate demands. In Britain, for example, the communists could apply the united front policy by requesting affiliation to the Labour Party on the basis that they retained the freedom to publish their own press and to call Labour leaders scabs, etc.

In fact, the boot is on the other foot. It is the advocates of 'broad parties', electoral coalitions like Respect and the SWP's conception of the Socialist Alliance (mark two) who do not understand the united front policy. The Comintern documents, and the advocates of the united front policy (especially Trotsky), are entirely clear that the minimum precondition for any actual agreement for common action was that the communists should retain the liberty to advance their own programme and to criticise their coalition partners. This is the exact opposite of the policy which has been pursued in the name of the united front by the current opponents of a Marxist party.

'Non-revolutionary times'

A Marxist party, opponents like Tony Greenstein of the Alliance for Green Socialism argue, means a revolutionary party. And a revolutionary party is needed for revolutionary times. But our times are not revolutionary. That is why there is no mass support for revolutionary politics. Hence what is immediately needed is a left reformist party.

There are two problems with this sort of argument. The first is that 'revolutionary party' is often used as a code for an awful lot of garbage - in particular, for the bureaucratic centralism, sectarianism and splitting into umpteen pieces of the existing far left.

Recognising this fact is critical. To take even one step forward it is necessary to discard the SWP's and other Trotskyists', Maoists', etc 'Leninist party conception' of bureaucratic centralism, keeping internal political differences secret and so on. It is not a matter of arguing that such a party would be useful at some future time, but is not now. There are no conceivable circumstances, up to and including civil war, in which a party having the political character and organisational forms of the SWP (or umpteen similar sects) would be useful to the working class.

The second is that, whatever our judgment of the immediate movement of current circumstances in Britain, it is clear that objective dynamics have changed since the turn of world capital away from the Bretton Woods international economic regime and to 'financialisation', and since the (connected) fall of the USSR and eastern European regimes and the turn of the Chinese regime to open capitalism.

The fundamental change is that capital is no longer willing to make the sort of concessions it made to the working class and the middle classes (including the Soviet bureaucracy, the trade union and Labour bureaucracies, and the third world nationalist regimes) in the aftermath of World War II.

For this reason left reformist policies in a single country are met - as they were in the Mitterrand government in France in 1981 - with flight of capital and economic destabilisation. For this reason in turn, people who used to be left reformists, when they are confronted with the realities of governmental office, become Blairites.

Capital will no doubt make concessions again. But it will do so not when reformists offer to manage the capitalist state better than overt pro-capitalists, but when capitalists are put in fear - to use an expression which was once common currency - of "bankers hanging from lamp-posts in Threadneedle Street".

The global regime of financialisation means that for capitalists to be put in fear it is no longer sufficient for there to be militant action of the working class in a single country. The response to that is simply to move their capital elsewhere. What is required is to develop the international solidarity and international action of the working class.

As far as the policy of the British workers' movement is concerned, in order to revive its strength it needs to organise people who are presently unorganised. But that requires a clear willingness to violate the existing rules of capitalist legality - the immigration laws as well as the anti-union laws. This takes us back to the state and internationalism as present political questions. In order to deliver political support and solidarity against the law, the police and the immigration officials it is necessary to be willing to openly attempt to delegitimise the state regime and the judges - not just the Tories and Blairites - as being the corrupt creatures of capital.

From this point of view, whether the times are 'revolutionary' or 'non-revolutionary' is utterly secondary. The problem is how to conduct the class struggle under present circumstances. The various 'broad party' projects rest on an appeal to the politics of nostalgia - for the Bretton Woods regime, for Keynesianism and for the post-war social democratic consensus. This is illusory, and it is proved to be illusory by the fate of every 'broad party' project.

The alternative is to fight for a Marxist party: one which is openly for working class rule, against the existing capitalist states and state system, and for international working class solidarity and action. These principles are not arbitrary or sectarian: they are objectively posed by the current necessities of the class struggle. As long as comrades resist these necessities, and counterpose a false unity with nationalist-reformist 'socialists' to the creation of a Marxist party, they will in fact stand in the way of prosecuting the class struggle for immediate demands effectively.