Clinging to Trotskyist pieties

There is no movement in Britain to set up a new 'mass workers' party', argues Mike Macnair. What can be achieved, however, is a united party of the Marxists

On November 9 last year the Weekly Worker published my critique of comrade Dave Craig's November 2 argument against campaigning for a Marxist party. Over the last three months comrade Craig has been gradually attempting to respond to my critique, in a series of articles on Chartism (January 4), the Marxist party campaign (January 25), 'democratic permanent revolution' (February 15) and again on permanent revolution (March 22).

The substance of the problem with comrade Craig's arguments is simple. In spite of the Revolutionary Democratic Group's break with Trotskyist economism (worship of the trade union struggle, refusal to address the question of the political order of the state) in all other respects comrade Craig clings to Trotskyist, and indeed post-war Trotskyist, and in particular Cliffite, pieties. Since these pieties are one of the major causes of the present fragmentation and impotence of the left, it is necessary to critique them in detail.

I had hoped to write at less length than comrade Craig. The problem is that, since his argument is in substance a piling-up of very numerous Trotskyist pieties in the endeavour to give plausibility to an otherwise utterly implausible perspective, a good deal of detail is called for. This article will address what I regard as the core of comrade Craig's arguments about the 'mass workers' party' and 'revolutionary Marxist faction'. A second article, to follow, will address the question of 'democratic permanent revolution'. A third will return to a large number of comrade Craig's subsidiary points. These, taken together, betray the same pattern.

The original debate

For clarity, it is necessary to summarise the points of my original critique. In the first place, I said that comrade Craig's arguments were characterised by a sectarian refusal to recognise that the actually existing Labour Party, including at least part of its right wing, is a mass party of the working class - albeit also one linked to and controlled by the capitalist class. As a result, comrade Craig promotes illusions in the existence of mass support for a new workers' party of some sort (provided it is not 'Marxist' in the sense in which comrade Craig uses that term).

Secondly, I said that 'Marxist party' can be used as shorthand for a party which is committed to (1) working class political action, (2) radical democratic opposition to the existing state regime and the existing bureaucratic regime in the workers' movement, and (3) fighting for the international unity of the workers' movement against all forms of nationalism. Comrade Craig, in contrast, uses 'Marxist party' to mean a 'revolutionary Marxist party': ie, a variant of Trotskyism. He counterposes this to a mass workers' party, which in his view will necessarily be non-(revolutionary) Marxist.

As an aside, I should say at this point that comrade Craig will undoubtedly respond - as he has orally - that his idea of a (revolutionary) Marxist party is not a Trotskyist party. My opinion is that this is nonsense. The whole of comrade Craig's argument is transparently within the political framework of post-war Trotskyism. The expression 'revolutionary Marxist' is no more than the Mandelites' (Fourth International) and Cliffites' (International Socialists-Socialist Workers Party) expression, used since the 1970s, for what they saw as their common ground (but without using the obnoxious word 'Trotskyist').

In the context of this problem - what does 'Marxist party' mean? - I argued that comrade Craig revealed the hidden secret of his 'non-sectarian' line by arguing that a real 'Marxist tendency' would have to agree with the RDG's 'new theory of permanent revolution'. While the 'mass movement' was to be non-Marxist, the 'Marxist tendency' would have to agree with the RDG's particular sect theory. I characterised this as "sectarian defence of the existence of the RDG as an independent organisation".

Thirdly, in his November 2 article comrade Craig argued that, because of the international unity of the proletariat as a class, there could be no Marxist party in a single country. I pointed out that this argument was "utterly extraordinary" - given the RDG's failure to attempt to intervene in the existing international movement. It is certainly true that we have to fight for an International; but we have to fight for an International in the international movement as it exists. Part of that is the fight for unity of the Marxists in each individual country, Britain included.

Central argument

Craig's central argument is concerned with the difference between the 'mass workers' party' and the 'Marxist faction' within it. In the course of this argument he simply falsifies what I have argued:

"The slogan of a republican socialist party promotes the need for [a mass workers' party]. It stands on the shoulders of Chartism and against the politics of Labourism. For the basis of this party we can defer to Mike Macnair.18 Mike says we need a party with three very general principles: 'First, it stands for the idea that the working class ... should run society.' This is surely a reference to the aim of socialism and common ownership. 'Second, it stands for extreme democracy or democratic republicanism, both in the state and the workers' movement.' And 'Third, it stands for international working class solidarity.'

"Mike's three principles must be the common currency for all those fighting for a mass republican socialist party. But Mike has another principle, which is the elephant in the room. He does not mention it, but we can hardly avoid seeing it. The mass party must also be 'Marxist'. The masses must accept revolutionary Marxism as the basis of the party."

Hitherto comrade Craig's 'republican socialist party' has been one which is not committed to the three principles, but is a 'republican socialist left unity party'. In particular, it is only in the polemic which began in November that comrade Craig has begun to recognise that we need a party which stands openly for the international unity of the working class. This is a step forward. But it is muddled up both by comrade Craig's use of the nationalist Scottish Socialist Party as a model, and by his 'national' 'democratic permanent revolution'.

Comrade Craig falsifies my argument, because I have said in earlier articles that 'Marxist' is shorthand for a party which fights openly for the three principles, and nothing more. Comrade Craig insists that it must mean something else: 'revolutionary Marxism' as well as the three principles. As I have already said, repeatedly, I do not mean any such thing. I think that a party, faction or tendency based on 'revolutionary Marxism' (whether in its normal meaning as Trotskyism, or in comrade Craig's peculiarly-alleged-to-be-not-Trotskyist sense) is a complete waste of space. The numerous such 'parties' - ie, sects - which exist, though they contain many serious militants who do useful work, are obstacles to the creation of the sort of party we need.

I think that such 'parties' are equally useless under conditions of revolutionary crisis: witness Bolivia at least twice; witness Argentina in the 1970s, at the fall of the dictatorship, and again in the 2000-01 crash; witness the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76 - to take but a few examples.


Comrade Craig argues that there is a natural tendency for the workers' movement to create a mass party to fight for reforms. Agreed (we can forget the fact that Craig confuses trade unions with parties). The old CPGB was not a mass party. Agreed. But, comrade Craig argues, the Bolsheviks - a "revolutionary Marxist" party or faction - were not a mass party before 1917, but became a mass party in the course of the revolution: "In January 1917 the Bolshevik Party had 23,600 members. It was relatively small. By April 1917 this had risen to 79,204. In July there were 240,000 members ..." In contrast, comrade Craig says, "in the conditions as they exist today in Britain a mass revolutionary party is not possible."

This is a standard Trotskyist argument. The other side of the argument is to aim, in 'non-revolutionary conditions', to build a small 'revolutionary Marxist' tendency, faction or party alongside a mass 'party of reform'. After all, the argument runs, the Bolsheviks were small in January 1917, yet became a mass party very rapidly under revolutionary conditions ... The project has been repeatedly attempted, both in Britain and elsewhere, and has equally repeatedly failed.

The problem is that to characterise the Bolsheviks as 'small' in January 1917 is to leave out of account altogether the objective conditions. Suppose that the Bolsheviks had 23,600 members before the outbreak of the February revolution. They had those members under conditions of full illegality and active repression of their party, conditions in which the tsarist regime commonly conscripted worker activists and sent them to the front even if it disrupted war production, and in which their chief opponents in the workers' movement, the pro-war wing of the Mensheviks, had state support. For an illegal party under these conditions, 23,600 members is not a small party like the old CPGB. It is a huge party.

The reality is that - especially in the period after 1912 - the Bolsheviks won majority support in the Russian working class movement, and did so in non-revolutionary conditions. The outbreak of the war knocked them back badly; but on the eve of the February revolution, they were already pretty much as 'mass' as a party which is both illegal and subjected to actual repression can possibly be.

The argument from the Bolsheviks is therefore doubly false. It is false in supposing that a Marxist party can only win mass support in revolutionary conditions; and it is false in supposing that a sect can grow into a real class party (as opposed to becoming an ephemeral, very big sect, like the Fedayeen in 1979-80 Iran) under conditions of revolutionary crisis.

The Trotskyists in Britain and elsewhere, and the Maoists in several other countries, have run the far left into a blind alley by clinging to an idea of a 'revolutionary' party which makes a false direct historical link between the (much misunderstood) arguments of Lenin's What is to be done? and the arguments of the Comintern's 1920 Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution and 1921 The organisational structure of the communist parties, the methods and content of their work. This direct historical link falsifies all of the political character - the activities, the size and the social roots - of Bolshevism down to 1917. As a result, it legitimises sect politics. Comrade Craig's argument from Bolshevism shows that he is still clinging to this particular Trotskyist piety.

Present political dynamics

Comrade Craig argues that, on the one hand, "In Britain there is a movement for a mass workers' party" (January 25). The CPGB, in comrade Craig's view, is sectarian towards this movement because it insists on the struggle for a Marxist party, rather than fighting for a republican socialist party - ie, one which is non-Labourite, but also non-Marxist.

On the other hand, comrade Craig declares: "There is no prospect or possibility of setting up a new Marxist party. It is not on the cards. It is not going to happen. This cannot be insisted on too strongly ... Of course, there might be a political earthquake that would radically alter the prospects. But not on the basis of current trends continuing" (January 25).

My view, in contrast, is that "In Britain there is no movement for a new mass workers' party". What there is, instead, is a bunch of Trot groups pretending to be one or another variety of movement for a new left or workers' party; and a few trade union leaders who lead unions which have got fed up with New Labour and jumped ship, but for whose membership this if anything is a retreat into non-political trade unionism: so that Crow's and similar 'new party' speculations do not represent a broader movement in the ranks.

Further, in my view, there is no prospect or possibility of setting up a new mass workers' party. It is not on the cards. It is not going to happen. This cannot be insisted on too strongly ... Of course, there might be a political earthquake that would radically alter the prospects. But not on the basis of current trends continuing.

The underlying reason for this judgment is that in my view there is an existing mass workers' party: the Labour Party. New Labour represents choices made by the majority of the trade unions through their officials and by the majority of the party's ranks. The underlying character of the Labour Party has not so far changed. Hence every attempt to leap to the creation of a new mass workers' party creates only a front for one or another Trotskyist group.

What is practically possible - if the Trotskyists, including for this purpose the Revolutionary Democratic Group, are prepared to face up to the objective dynamics and to the failure of their policies - is a united party of the Marxists. Such a party would need to be based on the open defence of the fundamentals of Marxism as a politics, as opposed to as a body of theory: that is, working class political power, the international unity of the working class, and radical democracy both in the state and in the movement.

Such a party could in the present dynamics hope to be on approximately the scale of the old Communist Party or of the Greens: ie, with a membership between 10,000 and 30,000 and electoral support in the 5%-10% range, with some local strongholds.

It is, of course, a condition for the creation of such a party that enough of the existing far left should be persuaded to abandon their sect concept of the 'revolutionary party' or 'revolutionary Marxist faction' to give the new party a unitary character. Comrade Craig denies that this is possible: "The majority of Marxists in the SWP and SP have no perspective of launching a new Marxist party. They see themselves as the political base for such a party. They are not going to change their minds for what they see as the dubious privilege of giving the CPGB and their allies recognition or influence".

My opinion is, on the contrary, that there is an objective need for, and in consequence an objective dynamic towards, unity of the Marxist left. This dynamic is perfectly clearly visible across Europe. In this country it has resurfaced episodically in the tendency for 'broad front' projects like Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, and like the Socialist Alliance, to be partially turned into far-left unity projects. In contrast, attempts at unity of the 'broad' or 'anti-neoliberal' left which refuse unity of the Marxists have run into the sand or turned into sect fronts: SLP again, and now Respect and the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. Hence it is perfectly possible that the militants of the organised left can be persuaded to abandon their caricature-'Leninism' in favour of a project of unity on the basis of elementary Marxist political principles. Not easy, but possible.

Empirically testable

These categorically opposed views are matters of empirically testable judgments of the current political dynamics. My own view is that it is blindingly obvious that comrade Craig's view is wrong. To give a single example, Comrade Craig continues to hold out the Scottish Socialist Party as a model:

"The Revolutionary Democratic Group has argued that communists should be campaigning for a mass republican socialist party and for a communist (Bolshevik or revolutionary Marxist) faction within it. The closest example today is the Scottish Socialist Party, before the split, and the Republican Communist Network, a platform within it."

This in spite of what has happened to the SSP. In the first place, it is plain that the SSP has now gone down in flames - split into two competing sects. And, further, it is clear that this split resulted from, first, the SSP's liberal, as opposed to democratic, regime, in which a small circle at the centre of the party tried to keep secrets from the membership; and, second, its adaptation (on the prostitution question, for example) to capitalist ideology - which is part of the same process as its adaptation to nationalism.

The failure of comrade Craig's arguments as arguments grounded in the present dynamics of British politics is also evidenced by the fact that he has simply failed to answer my points about the character of the Labour Party, and twists and turns to evade one of the central charges I made - that his policy is sectarian towards the Labour Party.

Comrade Craig, however, backs up his wildly unrealistic assessment of current British political dynamics with a 'theory' which predicts that - in spite of the evidence - there should be a movement for a new mass 'republican socialist party'; and hence that CPGB's policy is sectarian towards this non-existent movement.

Trotsky, Cliff, Chartism

The core of comrade Craig's 'theory' is taken from Trotsky's suggestion, in Where is Britain going? (1925), that "history is liquidating liberalism and prepares to liquidate pseudo-Labour pacifism precisely so as to give a second birth to Chartism on new, immeasurably broader historical foundations." The further details in support are supplied (so far as they are) from Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein's The Labour Party: a Marxist history (1988).

We should not blame Trotsky too much for comrade Craig's schema. It was, after all, no more than a passing mention in a polemic against the pacifism and legalism of the contemporary British labour movement, written at great speed by a busy revolutionary. We should not be surprised, either, that Cliff and Gluckstein seized on Trotsky's approach to Labourism as a framework to provide 'historical' support for the SWP's version of 'reform or revolution'. But comrade Craig has available to him the full riches of the Marxists Internet Archive, and the riches of London's libraries for the vast amount of historical work done on the history of the British workers' movement, if he chooses to use them. That he chooses instead to use Cliff and Gluckstein reveals that behind the supposed break with 'economism' he is still mired in Marxism-Trotskyism-Tony Cliff Thought.

Comrade Craig's summary of Chartism is characterised by a critical absence. This is the absence of the movement's international, historical location: as part of the movement growing out of the left wings of the American and French revolutions. Chartism is thus made, as it were, to spring up out of nothing.

Cliff and Gluckstein's influence is prominent in the lessons Craig draws from Chartism. Craig claims that the Chartists' demands "in themselves were eminently moderate", but "moderate aims were backed by militant action" - mass demonstrations, general strikes and armed uprisings.

The claim that the demands of Chartism were "eminently moderate" ignores the quotation Craig himself gives from Whig MP, historian and anti-slavery activist Thomas Macaulay, that universal suffrage "was incompatible to the very existence of civilisation". Macaulay, a left Whig, is not some oddball rightist: the demand for universal manhood suffrage was, in the early 19th century, the universal marker of leftist 'extremism'.

The converse of this falsification is that Cliff's line, which Craig follows, fetishises the tactical form of "militant action". This is an aspect of the Bakuninist inheritance of Trotskyism. It had some apparent plausibility in the high period of shop-steward militancy (though even then the IS-SWP rendered it stupid by fetishising unofficial strike action). It is reduced to absurdity today in the Stop the War Coalition, which refused to make any sharp political intervention in the 2005 general election for fear of splitting the 'broad front', yet turns us all out every few months for "militant action" in the form of a large national street demonstration.

Chartism negated and its negations

Chartism was defeated in 1848 - essentially by a combination of direct repression and concessions to the working class masses (repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, bringing food prices down; the Factory Act 1847, conceding in principle the demand for the 10-hour working day). All in all, the defeats of the democratic movement on a European scale (defeat of the French workers in June 1848, and the general shift of politics to reaction after this event) were decisive.

But if Chartism as a political movement was defeated, the workers' movement which underlay it went on. Guerrilla struggles over the application and extent of the Factory Act, and the impact of the act and of these struggles internationally, are charted by Marx in Capital Vol 1, chapters 10 and 11. In the 1860s, both the movement for universal suffrage and international solidarity campaigns revived. The upshot was the participation of the British trade unions in the First International, founded in 1864.

What is certainly not true is that Marx and Engels fetishised "militant action" for "moderate demands" in the way Cliff and, following him, comrade Craig, do. The constitutional political agitation, pressure on parliament, etc, was for them as much part of the movement as the episodic strikes and so on. The First International posed its task as developing the internationally common independent policy of the working class movement: visible chiefly in international affairs, but also in relation to standing armies, the land question and the education question.

The reaction after the Paris Commune saw the defeat of the International. This time, we can see a real negation. But it is not a negation simply of the 'non-constitutional' character of the movement. On the contrary, it is the negation both of its internationalism and of its political independence from the left wing of the capitalist parties. What succeeds the International, in Britain, is British chauvinism, and trade unions limited to national horizons and tied to the Liberal Party.

The background to this negation is not simply defeat. As with Chartism, the capitalists made concessions. The 1867 Reform Act enfranchised - in the towns only - adult male urban householders, and male lodgers occupying property which would let unfurnished for £10 a year - ie, the upper end of the rental market. This in turn meant the upper part of the working class. The change was aimed to incorporate the top layers of the working class into the capitalist two-party system. It went along with other concessions to the top layers of the working class organised in trade unions: Trade Union Act 1871, Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, Employers' Liability Act 1880. And it also went along with a massive increase in state and press promotion of the idea of the British empire as uniting all classes.


Empire and nationalism were to be the keys again when the movement towards working class political independence was deflected once more, in the formation of the modern Labour Party in 1914-18. The moment at which the Labour Representation Committee/Labour Party became more than a smallish minority party was in World War I. At least in part, bringing Labour into the political mainstream was the imperialist regime's pay-off for the Parliamentary Labour Party and the trade union tops' stalwart support for the imperialist war effort. In 1918 the party's organisation was reshaped and its membership re-elected by the leadership to serve these goals. Labour's imperialism has been a consistent feature of the party ever since.

The traditional political form of Labour was that the party was ostensibly a party of the whole working class, independent of the capitalists. This idea was expressed in the affiliate structure, and in the ability of the constituency and district general committees and of the various conferences to debate and formally vote policy. In this sense Labour reincarnated the independent political voice of the working class which was central to Chartism and the First International.

But at the same time Labour was also always an organ of the British state. At one level this arose from its nationalist political commitments. At another, it was given institutional form in the autonomy of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour groups on the local authorities (and the parallel institutional involvement of the trade union officials in various forms of tribunals and other quangos, from 1914-18 on); and by the system of bans and proscriptions. Formally directed against communists, this system has in fact provided the PLP and the apparatus with a veto over any organisation of the party ranks which reaches the point of making a real challenge to the control of the bureaucracy.

The ability of the workers' movement to debate and adopt an independent class policy through Labour was thus negated - in effect - by the aspiration of Labour to participate in government, which meant that any independent class policy was always subordinated to the tops' judgment of what was acceptable to the British state.

The underlying contradiction of Labourism has therefore been the choice between participation in the government system and independent working class policy. But this contradiction has been held in place by the ability of the state - because of imperialism - to organise concessions to the workers' movement, and the acceptance by a majority of the capitalist class that such concessions are necessary.

The forms of the concessions have changed: after 1945 there was a shift into collective welfare provision and consequent levelling within the working class; with the turn of global capital to financialisation/globalisation, there has a been a return towards concessions to the top layers of the working class and stratification of the class. But the logic of concessions plus deepening state involvement in the workers' movement is still present, and it will continue to be present until there is an open crisis - full-scale crash or large-scale warfare - in the US-led global imperialist order.

The logic of this contradiction is that Labour in opposition can move a long way to the left, while Labour in government can move a long way to the right. The poles of the contradiction only tend to fly apart where there is either a strong forward movement of trade union militancy, which is reflected, after a delay, in Labour (as in the late 1920s and the late 1970s-early 1980s) or in very severe crisis (as in the later periods of the two world wars and in the 1931 split).

Negating Labourism

How, then, will Labourism be negated? The underlying ground of Labourism is international: it is Britain's place in the hierarchical structure of the international order, which enables the system of concessions through the state and through the Labour bureaucracy as a means by which capital manages the working class. To the extent that capital is either unable or unwilling to make such concessions,  the material ground of Labourism is undermined.

This has happened to some degree - but not, as yet, to such a degree as to cause the poles of the Labour contradiction to be forced apart. Hence here in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, there is disillusionment with 'all the politicians' and increased abstention, and some political space for a minority opposition to Labour from its left (both outside and inside the formal Labour structures). But there is not space for a split in Labour to create a new mass-scale party.

This is not to say that when Labourism's material grounds fail it will be negated in the interests of the working class. It is possible, and, indeed, not unlikely, given the refusal of the far left to unite, that Labourism will be negated in the direction of the formation of a mass far-right authoritarian nationalism.

Further, a split which did not negate the fundamental political elements of Labourism - ie, nationalism, the concessions to capital in order to form a government which does not attack capital's control of the state, and bureaucratic domination within the workers' movement - would not negate Labour in the sense of superseding it, but merely create a temporary left flank outside of Labour. This is what has turned out to be the role of Rifondazione, the Linkspartei.PDS, and so on - including the SSP.

Labour will, then, be negated, in the sense of being dialectically superseded, when the majority of the activists of the organised workers' movement come to adopt the basic ideas that democratically organised cooperation of the workers internationally takes priority over anything the capitalists are willing to offer through the state, and that for this purpose the labour bureaucracy has to be subordinated to democratic decision-making.

Comrade Craig offers a simpler alternative. He argues that there is widely perceived to be a crisis of parliamentary democracy, and "the workers' movement will not be able to avoid the issue forever". Moreover, "the more politically conscious part of the working class" (meaning who?) "recognises the movement has no independent political representation". Hence there is a tendency towards a new mass workers' party; and if this party is 'Chartist' in character, Labourism will be negated.

This argument carries the substitution of a schema for concrete analysis beyond the level of pseudo-abstraction represented in the pseudo-dialectic in which Labourism negates Chartism and is itself negated in a higher-level Chartism (negation of the negation). It is an expression of the RDG's 'democratic permanent revolution' theory - itself again an attempt to cling to Trotskyist pieties while breaking with economism.