What sort of party do we need?
In the aftermath of the ruinous schism in the Respect popular front, the humiliating failure of the left nationalist Scottish Socialist Party and the abortive Campaign for a New Workers' Party, Jack Conrad restates the case for a Marxist party
Failure, and on all sides at that, characterised the 20th century. Only an ectopic parody of socialism was possible in the weak links of imperialism. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels were surely right: real socialism needs coordination, crucially across the advanced countries - ie, our revolution is “an act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simultaneously”.1
Isolated, the fate of the local Russian revolution was sealed. Proletarian state power was a moment. Trapped by dire material circumstances, the USSR quickly turned into its opposite and embarked on an unstable and unsustainable evolutionary pathway. The first five-year plan marked the genesis of a freak society, not socialism. Eastern Europe and China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam were post-capitalist, but equally non-socialist. Neither they nor the USSR held the mirror of the future in their hands.
In part capitalism survived into the 21st century by relying on the counterrevolutionary trajectory of Stalinism in the workers’ movement; in part by time and again defensively moving away from its essence. Militarism and monopoly, fascism and the social democratic state are all, in their different, but related ways, forms of failure. The system is in decline and increasingly malfunctioning.
Capitalism can also be said to be a system in transition. Numerous features negatively anticipate socialism - crucially the steady eclipse of the market and the law of value by organisation and need. Ironically, Thatcherism and so-called marketisation confirm that prognosis. Everywhere, and increasingly so, the market is a pseudo-market. A couple of examples will suffice:
- The world banking system is propped up by central banks in order to prevent the entire overblown edifice from crashing down. There are massive subsidies too. In March 2008 the Bush administration completed the state takeover of the US housing finance sector. Corporate mega-losses were thereby nationalised.
- In Britain, the birthplace of Thatcherism, both the prices and profits of the water, electricity, gas, railways and other once nationalised ‘natural’ monopolies are, to all intents and purposes, fixed by state decree. The claim that you cannot ‘buck the market’ was always palpable nonsense.
After the 1989-91 collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, Francis Fukuyama and Eric Hobsbawm, Martin Jacques and Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan hymned the triumph of capitalism (enthusiastically or mournfully). Despite that, the 21st century has every likelihood of seeing the end of capitalism and the triumph of socialism.
Behind the myopic heralds of capitalism’s so-called new world order rode war, pestilence, ecological degradation and economic crisis.
l War. Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded as part of an all-embracing ‘war on terror’. Today the US readies to unleash upon Iran exactly the same chaos (perhaps fronted by a ‘pre-emptive’ air strike by Israel). There are already murderous UN sanctions in place. Effectively war by other, economic, means. Meantime, Pentagon officials and military top brass actively prepare the use of nuclear weapons against Iran. Inventing new enemies abroad serves as a stop-gap for the cold war system. A system which controlled the US working class throughout the 1950s and into the late 80s and corralled other capitalist powers into the US empire of dollars, alliances and bases. Nowadays the ‘war on terror’ excuses torturing suspects, ramping up arms spending, imposing draconian restrictions on civil liberties and threatening other countries with military action if they fail to comply with US wishes.
- Pestilence. The spread of Aids and the acute danger of a mutated H5N1 avian flu virus becoming a devastating human pandemic are inextricably bound up with capitalist social relations. Poverty, social atomisation and industrialised agriculture breed and spread diseases. Health authorities warn of over a hundred million deaths in worst-case bird flu scenarios.2
- Ecology. Almost unanimously climate scientists expect runaway global warming in the next 20 or 30 years, unless CO2 and other such greenhouse gas emissions are immediately and radically curtailed. Despite that, capitalist or pro-capitalist governments remain doggedly, fanatically, committed to growth for the sake of growth. The 1997 Kyoto protocols, even if ratified by the US, amount to next to nothing. A classic case of too little, too late. Gwyn Prins of the LSE and Steve Rayner of Oxford university sombrely write of Kyoto that “as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed”.3 Of course, the root of the failure goes much deeper than this or that government. Capitalism treats nature as a free gift and is inconceivable without constant self-expansion. It is almost perfectly designed to degrade the environment.
- Economic crisis. The system is visibly running out of room for manoeuvre. A massive surplus of capital exists. Hence overborrowing, overlending, leveraged buyouts, corporate cannibalism, the spiral in property prices, the sub-prime mortgage disaster, Bear Stearns and the credit crunch have combined to produce a situation where not only the US faces the “mother of all economic meltdowns”.4 Surplus capital must be destroyed. The world economy as a whole teeters on the brink. If a crash is avoided this time, it will surely be a case of putting off the inevitable.
Everything we know about capitalism tells us that a complete transformation of all existing social conditions is urgently required. The wealth that exists in such antagonistic abundance certainly tells us that socialism is materially ready and immanent.
Under such circumstances human will, consciousness and organisation decides. Subjectivity assumes greater and greater importance. People make history: however, they do so primarily through the clash of class against class. Hence workers - that is, all who live from the wages fund (ie, not only the employed, but pensioners, the unemployed, those on invalidity benefit, etc), ie, the great majority of the population in the advanced capitalist countries and in many so-called third world countries too - must form themselves into a class, a class for itself. In more everyday language, the workers must form themselves into a political party. And, being a global class that relies on global liberation, the working class must organise on a global scale. So, while beginning in Britain, we seek party unity in Europe and then throughout the planet.
Necessarily, we must ask here an elementary question. What is a party? The answer lies in the origin of the word ‘party’ itself. It comes from the Latin pars or part. Our party must be the voluntary union of the most determined, most dedicated and most conscious part of the working class. Almost by definition that means a Marxist party.
Why Marxism? Because Marxism is both inspiring and practical in its aim of human liberation, open-ended in its materialist method and yet thoroughly partisan with regard to the working class and its interests. Hence a party which unites all Marxists, a party guided by Marxist theory, a party based on a Marxist programme. Using the correct scientific terminology, a Communist Party.
The working class has many organisations with which it wages its struggle against capital: trade unions, single-issue campaigns, cooperatives, educational institutions, youth associations, defence corps, soviets, etc. But only a Marxist party can coordinate these organisations, patiently win them to work in a united way, so that they do not hinder each other and instead serve the entire class. The Marxist party can fulfil that centralising role precisely because it has rallied the best part of the class to its ranks and trained them as leaders.
But that is not all. The Marxist party can direct the class struggle because, via the operation of democratic centralism, it is itself the most disciplined detachment of the working class. Within the party, lower bodies subordinate themselves to the authority of the higher ones; both majorities and minorities act together as one in agreed, practical action. Therefore the Marxist party forms a single system. The Marxist party is not merely the sum of its organisations. It is a fist which strikes in the right direction. That centralism is ensured through constant debate, education, open criticism and voting. Such far-ranging democracy is no indulgent luxury. It provides the best conditions through which the Marxist party is self-united around Marxism.
Hence the party we envisage embodies the most disciplined unity and at the same time the merger of the workers’ movement with rational, scientific theory. The party we want is the highest form of working class organisation - for which there is no substitute, and there should be no delay in starting.
No Marxist party springs forth ready-made. No class spontaneously produces the party that corresponds to its interests. Social life is complex and full of contradictions. Individuals, for example, can originate in one class and yet take a political stand that means they belong body and soul to another. Only through the tangled skein of economic and political struggle - embracing the most diverse periods - do classes form a collective consciousness of themselves. As they do, the groupings, factions and trends of those classes shift, manoeuvre and crystallise around definite ideas and programmes. Then, as during 1917 in Russia, when millions are drawn from inertia and passivity into activity and enlightenment, basic questions powerfully emerge and divisions are finally created which really correspond to a given class.
What we have said thus far goes some way to answer the question of what relationship exists between the Marxist party and the broad mass of workers. The Marxist party we envisage would consist of many millions and should have no interests separate and apart from the working class. No sectarian principles of its own would be set up to judge and dictate to the wider workers’ movement. On the contrary, as Marx and Engels explained, our aim is to seek out and always to bring to the fore common interests, the “interests of the movement as a whole”.5
Common interests, practical demands and historic aims - that is what informs our programme. What the Soviet Union was or was not can be left for historians and theoreticians to argue over. The doctrine of the Soviet Union as state capitalism or a degenerate workers’ state as a condition for membership is certainly utterly alien to our understanding of what constitutes a party. Ditto the exact definition of the Labour Party. Anyway membership of the Marxist party requires acceptance of the programme. Not agreement. A vital distinction.
What of the relationship between a Marxist party and other existing working class groups, factions and so-called parties? We do not intend to form a Marxist party in opposition to other working class and socialist forces. Our immediate aim is to win all genuine partisans of the working class to take their place in the Marxist party and, failing that, to deepen cooperation and joint work.
That applies equally to Marxist activists still in the sects, as it does to the small army who have left them in disgust but who remain Marxists. Like them we argue in favour of the class struggle and against the existing social system. Internal democracy and a healthy culture of debate within the Marxist party will help no end to overcome all sectarianism and undemocratic nonsense.
As said above, trade union activism, protest politics and single-issue campaigns can never substitute. Indeed it is the task of the Marxist party to transform - through agitation, education and organisation - spontaneous trade union and other such struggles into a conscious battle for the aims of republican democracy, socialism and general human freedom.
The 21st century will see the victory of the working class party and global socialism. Either that, or the continued rule of the bourgeoisie and mutual destruction through war, disease, ecological degradation, economic crisis, etc.
Establishing a Marxist party, and winning for it, in place of her majesty’s Labour Party, the position of the natural party of the working class, is therefore not something to be put off till a revolutionary situation arises. Such complacency misunderstands the past and today amounts to a suicide pact.
From the start the Labour Party functioned as the party of the labour bureaucracy. This was proved beyond doubt in 1914, when the Labour leadership discarded pious peace resolutions, rallied to the imperial war effort, urged men to join the colours and in every respect acted to ensure class peace at home so that the meat grinders of Flanders, Ypres and Verdun could be fed their alloted cargo of human victims. Each and every Labour government since then has acted in exactly the same loathsome spirit.
What of the theory of waiting for the Labour Party to be transformed into an instrument for socialism, as if it were almost inevitable? Frankly, that was always illusory and self-destructive.
Those Marxists who insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Labour Party is, or can be made into, the vehicle for socialism in Britain, compromise themselves and their own professed programme time and time again. They excuse, promote and explain this as necessary if unity with the reformist left in the Labour Party is to be maintained (who in turn compromise themselves and their own professed programme in order to maintain unity with the openly pro-capitalist Labour right, who in turn compromise themselves and their own professed programme so as not to upset the City, big business and the state machine). Hence through a long chain of unprincipled relationships the pro-Labour left subordinates itself to the bourgeoisie.
Our Marxist party will only be built as the mass party of the working class in ruthless and unremitting struggle against Labourism and all bourgeois influences. That, it should be stressed though, is a long-term perspective which necessitates continuous and close engagement with struggles in the Labour Party.
No matter how hard, no matter how long it takes, no matter what difficulties lie ahead, there is no escaping from the task we have set ourselves. The working class must be armed with its own party, a party that is politically independent of the capitalist class and the capitalist state. A party that is therefore necessarily politically independent of the labour bureaucracy too.
Without a Marxist party, workers face further atomisation, degradation and continued slavery. Without a Marxist party the working class can neither remember the past nor make itself fit for the future. Without a Marxist party the working class can never achieve or maintain state power anywhere in the world, let alone spread the flame of socialism internationally.
History shows that relying on spontaneity, elitist actions, single-issue campaigns, general strikes or even the formation of fighting squads and soviets, in and of themselves always ends in failure. Logic tells us that too. The labour bureaucracy, and thus the bourgeoisie, surely must get the upper hand over a worker class that has not trained itself to think historically, to unite around a single strategy and to act swiftly as one.
General strikes and soviets that arise without the leadership, coordination and direction provided by a Marxist party face limitation, diversion and, that failing, certain betrayal by the labour bureaucracy. A social caste which has a well oiled machine with many full-time officials, years of accumulated experience behind it, and countless friends and contacts within the capitalist state machine. Crucially the labour bureaucracy has material interests in the continuation of the capital-labour relationship. Trade union officialdom specialises in, and reproduces itself through, the endlessly circular bargaining process of the buying and selling of the commodity, labour-power. Without wage-slavery there would be no trade union bureaucracy.
Anyway, general strikes and soviets, in, for and by themselves, tend to quickly peter out, lacking as they do any inherent aim of the working class taking over the global economy created by capitalism. That or they spiral off into debilitating localism, as sectional interests erode class solidarity from within and eventually win out over the common interests of the movement. Workers must have their class party.
When it comes to the fight for a Marxist party, there is an obvious problem. With a few honourable exceptions what passes for the Marxist left is not committed to building a Marxist party. Instead there are various halfway house projects once recommended or now mooted. In the name of existing consciousness, the historical period, the so-called transitional method, making a difference or getting well connected allies on board, the attitude towards the existing state is fudged and fudged again. Certainly what is presented to the public is little more than a warmed-over version of social democratic reformism.
Examples are legion. In Britain we have seen the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and, perhaps worst of all, Respect. Disaster followed disaster - that or nothing came to nothing. No accident. Why vote for warmed-over social democratic reformism when reformism has palpably failed? Why join a miniature version of the Labour Party run by this or that leftwing sect, when there remains the real thing?
Elsewhere things have sometimes been conducted on a rather larger scale. Where that has been the case, we are provided with a much fuller lesson in the programmatic logic and consequences of such formations, at least when compared to present-day Britain.
- Die Linke participates as a minority in regional governments in eastern Germany, Berlin most notably. Done under the bog standard rubric of keeping out the right, inevitably Die Linke compromises its left reformist programme for the sake of unity with the Social Democratic Party. Die Linke thereby becomes not only the prisoner of the SDP, but a junior partner in attacking working class interests.
- The Partito della Rifondazione Comunista has proved no different. With Fausto Bertinotti enthusiastically leading the way like the Pied Piper, Rifondazione joined the Unione coalition headed by Romano Prodi as a captive minority. Preventing Silvio Berlusconi from returning to office after the April 2006 general election provided the excuse. Prodi’s government agreed from the beginning to maintain reductions in pension and other welfare provisions and the continued deployment of Italian troops in Afghanistan and Lebanon. The expansion of the US military base in Vicenza proved particularly controversial with the PRC’s base. But its leadership had no choice. Far from providing the working class with a voice in government, the PRC propped up a run-of-the-mill left-of-centre bourgeois government.
- The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, or Workers Party) in Brazil won 83 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 11 Senate seats in the October 29 2006 general election. Yet, despite being only the second largest party in the Chamber of Deputies and the fourth largest in the Senate, PT has leading ministers in the coalition government under president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (a PT founder-member first elected president in 2002). In order to reassure capital and in order to construct a governing coalition (Força do Povo) Lula persuaded José Alencar to run as his vice-president. A major capitalist in his own right and a former member of the centre-right Liberal Party, Alencar is now associated with the Republican Party. Following the same popular frontist logic, Lula accepted IMF accords and all in all promoted the interests of Brazilian capital at home and abroad.
A century ago such coalition politics were called Millerandism - after Alexandre Millerand (1859-1943). Leader of the socialist faction in France’s Chamber of Deputies, Millerand joined René Waldeck-Rousseau’s ministry of all talents in 1899. So as to further an illustrious parliamentary career, and doubtless to get a few minor pro-working class reforms enacted, Millerand willingly sat in government alongside the Marquis de Galliffet, the man who oversaw the crushing of the 1871 Paris Commune.
In light of the Millerand episode, the Second International condemned the participation of socialists in bourgeois governments (he was expelled from the Socialist Party in 1903). The working class party, it concluded, must win a clear majority, form a majority government and therefore carry out its full programme. Not that of another class.
Millerandism and its modern-day imitators have, as we have clearly shown, provided yet further proof of where halfway house projects lead. Over the rest of his political life Millerand moved further and further to the right and became to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the average bourgeois republican.
Even while backing, promoting or sowing illusions in this or that halfway house, the left organises itself according to what they understand to be the Bolshevik model. But the model they seek to imitate is not the Bolshevik Party that won the votes of the entire workers’ curia in 1912 or the Bolshevik Party that grew to class proportions and took power in the name of the soviets on November 7 1917.
Instead, it is the changeling form which first emerged during the horrors of the civil war and then turned from a weapon in the hands of the working class into a means of oppressing the working class, as the bureaucracy in the USSR hardened into a distinct social stratum.
Military and top-down forms of organisation were perfectly understandable - indeed they were vital - if the communists were to win the civil war. The same can be said of the Communist International’s generalisation of the Russian experience. Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and other top leaders were expecting the imminent outbreak of revolution in other countries. That meant organising for civil war conditions. Communists were told that they must adopt military levels of discipline and not bother too much with debate, critical thinking and democratic control of the top by the rank and file.
Though capitalism successfully stabilised itself in Europe, by the early 1920s there were undoubtedly sound reasons for Comintern to maintain what were called ‘Leninist’ forms of organisation. There were many signs and portents that seemed to promise the outbreak of revolution in central Europe - crucially Germany - even in the early 1930s. That is, till the Nazis came to power in 1933.
However, the ‘official’ world communist movement had by then become a pliant tool in the hands of Stalin’s bureaucratic socialism. On the one hand it had the prestige and on the other hand it had the brute strength to subordinate most ‘official communist’ parties to the Soviet Union’s state and sectional interests. Even when a degree of independence was maintained, such as in China - where Mao Zedong was able to say one thing and do another, not least because of red-base areas in remote places such as Yanan, where his party-army exercised what amounted to state power - there was a collapse into national socialism.
Yet, faced with communist parties which gained millions of recruits by associating themselves with the dynamism of the first five-year plans and heading the anti-fascist resistance, the leftist critics of Stalinism - not least the Trotskyites - failed in the main to make any substantial inroads. Roots in the working class were and remained shallow.
In part this was due to the size and standing of the ‘official’ communist parties, which were also able to stigmatise, witch-hunt and thereby marginalise the Trotskyites. But there were internal factors too. The Trotskyites organised along semi-military and highly bureaucratised lines and, because disagreements were viewed as akin to disobeying orders or even sabotage, this tended to produce split after split. And that on an ever decreasing scale too. Dissent was gagged or dealt with by expulsion and demonisation. Disagreements being inevitable, what began as a sect therefore produced more sects, each saddled with an internal regime directly analogous to that of ‘official communism’.
Before World War II such forms of organisation might have had some justification. But, with the victory of the US over the axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy (and the British empire) and the subsequent long boom, frozen politics plus frozen organisational forms constituted an absolute barrier to growth. No Trotskyite ‘party’ could become a party. Critical mass always remained elusive. That produced impatience, frustration and - especially after the 1997 election of New Labour - a crisis of leftwing expectations. Hence the halfway house projects of the 1990s and 2000s.
So establishing a Marxist party is not primarily about standing candidates in elections, doing the rounds of trade union conferences or backing this or that worthy strike or campaign. Crucially, we must reclaim the conception of the party and cleanse it of the bureaucratic and undemocratic muck that has been attached to it over many, many years.
Making the Marxist party is an extended process. Even after the overthrow of the capitalist state, under conditions of socialism, the party does not take final, fixed shape. Splits and unifications continue. The Marxist party must consequently be viewed as a living entity which might begin with the merger of half a dozen revolutionary groups, but finally ends only with the negation of politics itself - the relationship of classes to the state - when the lower phase of communism (socialism) passes into the higher phase and general freedom.
From what has been outlined it is clear that a Marxist party, in the span of its existence, can, and necessarily does, contain a whole gamut of opinions, the extremes of which may be sharply contradictory. After all, it is itself part of the working class. Take, for the sake of example, the various manifestations of the Communist Party in pre-revolutionary Russia. Side by side with Lenin and the Bolsheviks there were at different times centrist chiefs such as Plekhanov, Martov and Trotsky, as well as ultra-revisionists such as Struve. Each strand interwove in unity and conflict.
What fundamentally matters for Marxists is unity in action. Beyond those bounds there must be the broadest and freest discussion, including the open fight against all harmful decisions and tendencies. Members should be obliged to accept its programme and principles and abide by majority decisions on practical actions. Members are though by no means necessarily unanimous over theoretical questions, including matters of strategy and tactics. Disagreement is natural; so is its expression. Even when it comes to a fully debated and agreed programme, it is perfectly legitimate to criticise certain points and formulations.
Openness is as much a matter of principle as it is a weapon. The working class must be fully informed about every faction, shade and opinion as well as about differences and disputes in the labour movement as a whole. That way it can be educated and won to take sides. So, besides fighting for consistent revolutionary theory and practice, genuine Marxists insist on the need for freedom to discuss and to openly criticise. Hence our opposition to all forms of censorship and thought-control.
For communists, polemics and arguments are not signs of weakness, but strength. Our party must strive to organise and contain within itself all partisans of the working class, because that can only increase our social weight and thereby intensify our practice - which alone provides the ultimate proof about rightness or wrongness in theoretical matters. For our part we are sure that if at first arguments do not convince, practice will. Those who doubt the worth of united front tactics towards the Labour left or who think economic struggles are primary will not be excluded. The actual struggle will convince all honest comrades.
It would be mistaken to believe that a Marxist party should consist of a conglomeration of separate factions and tendencies. Unity, however, cannot be decreed. It has to be nurtured and fought for. Unity, the unity of all revolutionary and left socialists and communists within a Marxist party, does not in the least mean members should immediately dissolve their factional organisations or hand over their resources and publications. Insistance that that must be the case is worse than mischief-making. Nor does it mean hiding disagreements on strategy and tactics. Nothing of the kind. Political struggle should be carried on openly, straightforwardly and even robustly, using whatever language seems appropriate, till a conference decides. Naturally, even after a conference, comrades would retain the right to continue to present their views and criticisms. That is democratic centralism.
The party which we fight for is a far more useful weapon in the class war than the sectarian group which isolates and then pits one socialist militant against another. There must therefore be room for all sorts of shades and trends. Membership must not be based on agreement with this or that theoretician’s conclusions on the nature of the Soviet Union. Practice is what counts.
There are, of course, journals such New Left Review, Red Pepper, What Next? and the like which claim that, by providing an undifferentiated platform to an amorphous band of embittered former activists, demoralised exiles from this or that sect, reformist converts and out-and-out renegades, they strike a blow for unity. Quite the reverse. These publications sustain, fuel and flatter sectarianism. Unity, divorced from the fight for a working class party, is a hobby for dilettantes who are completely useless when it comes to the fight for socialism. Marxists take workers and the serious left groups as our basis. Unity without organisation is a chimera.
1. K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 5, 1976, p49.
2. See www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/conditions/02/15/birdflu.cost/index.html
3. Nature October 25 2007.
4. Martin Wolf Financial Times February 19.
5. K Marx, F Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party 1973, p61.