Small green shoots of life
While the state of the left provides grounds for demoralisation, there are reasons to be cheerful. Mike Macnair, whose pamphlet on revolutionary strategy will be published shortly, addressed the June 21 meeting to launch the CPGB's Summer Offensive fundraising drive
My pamphlet originally started as a series of articles about the 2006 debate on strategy in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. The point was to address the question: on what basis can the left unite for effective action?
It is blindingly obvious that both the left and the workers’ movement need unity. What are the obstacles preventing it? On the one hand, we have seen a series of ‘unity’ projects of one sort of another designed on the basis that they are going to recapitulate social democracy, or recapitulate ‘official’ communism. These projects have now almost invariably run completely into the ground.
On the other hand, we have a whole swarm of malignant sects of one form or another, each of which professes to stand on the basis of the first four congresses of the Comintern, plus, if you are a Maoist, the fifth, sixth and seventh congresses, along with the writings of the ‘great leaders’, Stalin and Mao; or if you are a Trotskyist, the documents or some parts of the documents of the Trotskyist movement and the Fourth International, and so on.
The question of strategy, in this situation, is as much about what has to be discarded - from the ideas of social democracy, of ‘official’ communism and of the sects - as it is about the positive.
I am not going to talk directly about the content of the pamphlet. Instead, my starting point is two sets of electoral disasters for the policy of class collaborationist unity, and the lessons which have very partially been learned from them.
The first is the presidential election in France. The Blairite project of the Ségolène Royal, the candidate of the Parti Socialiste, was defeated soundly by the right’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who held himself out as the French Thatcher.
On the left the Parti Communiste Français thought that they could win back votes from the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière by playing the unity card. Lutte Ouvrière responded to this offensive with business as usual. The Ligue, in contrast, offered the PCF unity on the condition that the PCF would break with the Parti Socialiste, or at least with the right wing of the Parti Socialiste, and would not go into government with Royal, Jospin and all the rest of the PS gang. The PCF unsurprisingly refused. The electoral outcome of these manoeuvres was that the Ligue held five percent, a small but significant vote, and the PCF and Lutte Ouvrière candidates were marginalised.
The second is the legislative elections in Italy. Rifondazione Comunista had originally gone into coalition with Prodi. It was driven by the exigencies of that coalition to break with its own left over Italian troops in Afghanistan. It was brought down, however, not by the far left, but by the centre. The result - a landslide for Berlusconi’s genuinely far right coalition. Since the election we have seen extra-parliamentary racist violence, with attacks on gypsies, Albanians and migrants in general.
On the left, the pretensions of the ex-Communist Party, the so-called Democratic Party, were not fulfilled; Rifondazione, now standing in a rainbow coalition - a classic unpopular front - was soundly trounced. The far left received poor but not utterly marginal returns.
What lessons have been drawn? We have already publicised in the Weekly Worker the French Ligue’s call for a new anti-capitalist party - a party which stands for changing rather than managing the system. Sinistra Critica, the Mandelites’ organisation in Italy, has now taken a similar turn, but with a more explicit political content. Its document is called ‘11 punti per una nuova sinistra. Di classe i anticapitalista’ (‘11 points for a new left. A class left and an anti-capitalist left’ - although the translators inInternational Viewpoint have eliminated the second clause and translated it as “11 points to face the crisis of the Italian left”).
To partly quote and partly paraphrase the ‘11 points’:
(1) A new left involves a break with the old leaders and the old patterns of organising.
(2) The question is no longer posed as a reconstruction, but building on new bases. Taking root in a society involves long-term, tedious and invisible work that does not necessarily pay off in the short term electorally.
(3) A new working class left must be anti-capitalist.
(4) We start anew from the point of view of opposition. It is possible to win victories from opposition, but entering into coalition government with characters of the Democratic Party type is impermissible.
(5) The central core question is the refoundation of class-struggle unions, starting with a class-struggle based opposition in the CGIL, the main union confederation. The central question posed at present is unity between the different struggles and movements.
(6) “We posit an anti-capitalist, ecologist, communist and feminist left - not a haphazard assembly of subjectivities - as the political framework for unity.” The communist aspect includes unambiguous internationalism.
(7) Absolute democracy is the decisive means of building: “We can no longer accept or build any left based on charismatic leaders, infallible dictatorships, immobile bureaucracy, scandalous careerism or institutional drift.”
(8) The left will build itself in the living world of contradictions and social conflict, not in the halls of power.
(9) Rebuilding the left also requires in-depth discussions, which must be rigorous and not ritualistic, about the sort of society we want and our strategic perspectives.
(10) A new left will be built in the here and now. Under this heading is a minimum programme: mostly of perfectly acceptable minimum demands, including - for example - the defence of abortion rights and the defence of the interests of migrants. But what is lacking are demands which touch the structure of the state or the constitution.
(11) Building the anti-capitalist left requires the commitment of a new generation; it means building on the basis of those willing to struggle, as opposed to the cadres of the mainstream left and the existing trade union movement.
This text is a mixture of the usual Mandelite rubbish and very substantial political steps forward. Point 11 on a ‘new generation’ is stuff the Mandelites have been saying for 40 years: the traditional ‘new left’ refusal to recognise that people can change their minds and that the tasks of a party are largely about helping them to do so.
The commitment to an “ecologist” and “feminist” left is classic Mandelite fudge. Both are words which cover a wide range of counterposed perspectives. “Anti-capitalist” is again a classic way of, in a sense, evading political choices.
On the other hand, the fact that the text uses the wordcommunist, and that it uses the word class, and that it insists on internationalism, is in contradiction with the methods of fudge. These are some absolutely fundamental steps forward.
Like the Ligue’s new party initiative, this is not a project of the so-called ‘united front party’, or ‘broad party’, or ‘party not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution’. It is not a programme for a halfway house which is going to provide a home for distressed Labourites (in the Italian context distressed former ‘official’ communists) who do not wish to give up their existing political perspectives.
It does not require the swallowing of packaged Trotskyism, yet is anti-Stalinist. What I mean by ‘Stalinist’ has three fundamental aspects.
- The party monolith: the idea that there can be no effective party without the suppression of differences and the control of discussion by the apparatus.
- Socialism in one country and national roads to socialism, which are two sides of the same coin.
- And the people’s front: ie, cross-class unity of the left, or cross-class anti-imperialist unity.
Stalinism under Stalin had periods of sharp left turns. But from the 1940s the three fundamental aspect of monolithism, national roads and people’s fronts have been the fundamental features of ‘official’ communism and of a good many of the splits to its left.
So ‘anti-Stalinist’ means in this sense a break with the party monolith (point 7); a classperspective (the title, point 3 and point 5), although the Sinistra Critica document has not really worked out or systematised what is meant by the term; and internationalism, although it has equally not really worked out the implications of proletarian internationalism.
This adds up to half a step forward. From the Ligue’s proposal and this document, we can see that sections at least of the Mandelite Fourth International are beginning to learn the most fundamental lesson. That is, that the global political conditions which supported Labourism, social democracy and ‘official’ communism are past and gone. Hence maintaining these ideologies, and trying new projects that preserve them leads only to dependence on the bureaucratic state - what the Sinistra Critica comrades call “institutional drift”. Hence in turn, these projects lead to preparing the ground for the victory of governments of the right, by demoralising the working class and the mass movement.
Moreover, by talking about patient building which does not necessarily result immediately in spectacular electoral outcomes, the text in effect recognises that the far left has lived the past 40 or 50 years as fringe pressure groups, while the basic tasks of class organisation have been carried on by the traditional socialist and communist parties.
We have to, as the comrades say, rebuild on a new basis. This is something I have argued in my strategy series and in the forthcoming pamphlet. Our tasks are analogous to those of the Second International. The question of revolution - ie, the question of the working class taking political power - will not be immediately posed until we have rebuilt the workers’ movement as an international class movement. This is something which the current degutted, hollowed out at the base, bureaucratic structures of the official workers’ movement, tied into and dependent on the state at every level, are incapable of doing.
We need, therefore, a strategy of patience. Not a get-rich-quick strategy, either on the basis that we can achieve things through coalition government or on the basis of cults of personality - Lula, Bertinotti, Sheridan, Galloway or god knows who the next one to be thrown up will be.
To sum up what I have said: in relation to the response to the electoral defeats in France and Italy, there is a half step forward by sections of the Mandelites. In the case of Sinistra Critica the response includes a good deal of strongly positive strategic points.
Let us restate the fundamental features of what constitutes the necessary basis for a party, which we have been arguing for some time now.
First, the working class needs to take over. Our strategic goal is to move to a society where the working class takes the decisions. To repeat for the nth time, the working class does not mean the people who are currently in waged employment. It means the social class dependent on the wage fund - the people currently in employment, the pensioners, the kids, the women who are home-makers, the unemployed - the people who can only make a living by waged work.
Secondly, to take over, the working class needs radical or extreme democracy. Sinistra Critica has taken the fundamental step forward of recognising that the workers’ movement needs radical democracy. A movement which will actually defend the interests of the working class, which the working class itself can actually mobilise and use, will never be built by dependency on state handouts. It can only be built by self-activity: and self-activity means control from andaccountability to the base. It will have to be built - I would not say from the bottom up - at all levels on the basis of democracy, self-government and voluntary cooperation. That is the fundamental step forward that Sinistra Critica has recognised. There cannot be effective unity without democracy.
But there is a further step forward which Sinistra Critica has yet to take, and that is the understanding that the working class taking power means precisely achieving extreme, radical democracy in the state, in the society as a whole. It does not mean nationalising everything. It does not mean glorified trades councils or soviets - unless these councils transcend themselves and become real organs representing the working class as a whole, including homemakers, pensioners, the unemployed and so on, and not just delegate bodies representing particular workplaces; and unless they are democratic-republican in their functioning, with freedom of parties, tendencies, etc, transparency, accountability downwards and so on.
This weakness is visible in Sinistra Critica’s minimum programme (point 10). It has some perfectly respectable minimum demands. But where are the fundamental demands to change the nature of the state? To address the question of the armed forces? To address the question of radical democracy in its impact on the judicial system, and so on and so forth?
Third point: the working class is an international class. We need to work now for proletarian internationalism and for international working class action under capitalism. It is not a question of saying that the left will seize power in one place and that will trigger a radical response elsewhere - which was always in reality a falsification of what happened in the Russian Revolution. There was an international offensive of the working class, starting in 1916 and running through to 1921, whose high point of success was the Russian Revolution. But it was an internationalmovement. There were similar international movements in 1943-48, and from 1968 to the Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions in 1979 and 1980.
Sinistra Critica has moved some way in the right direction but not all the way.
Bad news in Britain
Let me move on from the fundamental axes of strategy - class politics, extreme democracy, internationalism - to the contradictory situation in Britain.
I will begin with the negative, because it is always better to have the bad news first. Outside the CPGB and perhaps the small forces of Critique, repeated defeats have not led the British left to learn any lessons whatever.
In Britain Brown is on the way down and what lies behind Cameron’s ‘nice guy’ stuff is revealed by the casual comment of a shadow minister after Boris Johnson’s victory in the London election: it was called “our march on Rome”. In spite of this development the trade union leaders cling to a Labour Party increasingly bureaucratically controlled by the right, while the Labour left remains trivial. John McDonnell told the June 14-15 school of Hands Off the People of Iran that there are 1,300 members of the Labour Representation Committee - which makes it about the same size as the Socialist Workers Party before the unorganised split around Respect.
There is a significant increase in industrial action, but so far it does not involve a strong dynamic of mass action and self-organisation in the trade union movement, or the rebuilding of what are still hollowed-out trade union organisations at the base. It seems that the majority of union members still remain passive consumers of bureaucratic services, who are willing to stay home for a day or two, but are not actively building their unions, their branches, as a political instrument for themselves. It is important to recognise that there is an upwards dynamic of the industrial struggle, but at the moment it remains very limited.
The underlying dynamic of the left at the moment is towards splits, fragmentation, clinging to our own corner and so on. The Scottish Socialist Party project has crashed and burned. So has the Respect project.
The SWP’s Left List wants to transform its wing of Respect into something that mimics Die Linke in Germany, which is already under strain because of coalitionism. Respect-Galloway - basically Respect without the SWP - cannot last long. There is no sign that the International Socialist Group has drawn lessons like those drawn by the LCR and Sinistra Critica. Of course, the two fragments of the SSP both have the same character - no lesson has been learned from the split. The Morning Star-Communist Party of Britain’s Unity for Peace and Socialism is a particularly pathetic version of an unpopular front.
The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party is aiming for a new Labour Party and hopes for a helping hand from the trade union bureaucracy. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is the mouse that roared like a lion in the form of Sean Matgamna writing an open letter to Tony Woodley. I do not quite know what he expects from it. Workers Power’s resolution to the CNWP offers the same line of building a new Labour Party but with some ultra-left language about methods tagged on.
The flip side of this coin is that in the left there is absolutely no or very little serious reconsideration of bureaucratic centralism - though I will half except Permanent Revolution from this criticism.
The SWP revealed its true nature during its internal crisis caused by the decision to split Respect. Workers Power made it transparently clear that it was a bureaucratic centralist sect during the split with Permanent Revolution. Nobody has ever doubted that the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain is a bureaucratic centralist organisation.
The ISG keeps its internal differences hidden from the workers’ movement. The Socialist Party, similarly, while it allows some formal internal space for dissent, is like the Mandelites organised in a way which ensures that the permanent caste of full-timers controlling the patronage system contains all dissent. The AWL does have some open discussion, but there has still been a bureaucratically animated whispering campaign against its opposition (and its recent reports on trade union conferences have contrived not to mention the affiliation of PCS and Aslef to Hopi. It is clear that the AWL does not have an open, transparent and democratic political culture.
This whole context leads to two simultaneous outcomes: on the one hand, comrades of the British far left are still stuck with their pseudo-‘united front’ conception, which involves building a halfway house party aiming to attract old Labourites as old Labourites. On the other hand, they absolutely refuse to reconsider the question of bureaucratic centralism and organisational norms. This leads to the multiplication of extraordinarily similar projects.
We have discussed this in connection with the London elections: Respect Renewal, Left List, Unity for Peace and Socialism - you could not get a cigarette paper between the politics of these three projects. Why are they separate? Because of the petty-proprietor, bureaucratic interests of their leaders in their personal political careers. The upshot is deeply demoralising for the left as a whole.
This is a difficult situation for the CPGB. We are inevitably all in the same boat: we are part of the workers’ movement as a whole and part of the far left. The CPGB has been at its strongest - in terms of punching massively above our numerical weight - in the context of unity projects.
We have been arguing for years that we are not the party that the working class need. We do not say, ‘Come and join the CPGB as the way to build the party the masses need.’ The working class needs a party on the basis of principled unity of the existing militants of the movement, and on the basis of principled politics. In that context any serious unity project is, in a sense, a step in the direction of what we need, even if its actual political basis is the halfway house nonsense of the Socialist Alliance, Respect, the SSP, etc.
The road to unity was blocked partly by 9/11. 9/11 was the ‘tipping point’ at which the SWP began to collapse towards ‘official’ communist and Maoist politics, which is currently its dominant characteristic. On the other side, it precipitated a further slide of the AWL to an openly pro-imperialist policy. This made it difficult for unity between the SWP, the Socialist Party and the AWL to continue.
But the failure of the Socialist Alliance project was also related to the defence of bureaucratic centralism. The Socialist Party split from the SA in order to preserve its control over its own membership, its fiefs and the areas where it had electoral bases. The SWP then destroyed the SA in order to create a safe political space where its members would engage in ‘action’, not discussion. Indeed SWP members often demanded a space without political discussion, a space where they could get on with the real work of deciding who was going to hand out leaflets on a Saturday and such like.
In that sense, the combination of bureaucratic centralism and the fudging diplomatic version of the ‘united front’ have been the rocks on which left unity has been wrecked. On these matters our warnings, like Cassandra’s, have been confirmed. Like the Trojans, the majority of the British far left are unwilling to learn the lessons. It is not a comfortable situation for CPGB comrades. Certainly there is a tendency of comrades who were active in the CPGB during the days of the Socialist Labour Party and SA to demoralisation in view of the foundering of such unity projects.
To turn to the positive. The victories of the Hopi motions in the PCS and Aslef are limited but nonetheless important symbolic victories for proletarian internationalism - a fundamentally important question.
The history of the British workers’ movement is one essentially of liberalism - sympathy for the underdog; inverted nationalism (‘anyone but Britain’). But this inverted nationalism, which turns into support for nationalism abroad, is in fact a form of cross-class politics. It does not grasp the international unity of the working class as a class.
However, there is an underlying objective basis for proletarian internationalism. Internationalism is not something which the Marxists impose on a naturally nationalistic working class. But that underlying basis has been diverted in one direction by the Labour bureaucracy into organisations like the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions - turning the sentiment of proletarian internationalism into a ground for support for the operations of the British foreign office and the US state department. And the AWL is only the left wing - the left-talking wing - of an absolutely traditional part of the right wing of British social democracy.
Another form of diversion was ‘tankie-ism’. This too was a distorted form of internationalism. But the fundamental idea that the Soviet Union was about working class interests was a way in which workers’ internationalism found distorted political expression.
This fact is visible in the political collapse of the Eurocommunists - not merely becoming social democrats, but sometimes worse: for example, the hardest of hard-line Blairites. The abandonment of distorted ‘tankie’ proletarian internationalism immediately detached these people from the workers’ movement as a whole.
What both of these phenomena tell us is that there is a material ground, a very basic class instinct. for proletarian internationalism, for the unity of the proletariat as a class internationally.
Hopi appeals to that very basic instinct of international class solidarity - solidarity with the Iranian working class, both against the local theocratic dictatorship and against the imperialist operations of the British state. So the victory of these resolutions calling for affiliation to Hopi tells us that the material ground of a proletarian internationalism policy is there in the broad class movement, in spite of all that can be done against it by class collaborators of the CPB or the SWP on the one side (‘collaborate with the colonial bourgeoisie’); or the other sort of class collaborators like the Labour Friends of Iraq and the AWL (‘collaborate with the imperialists against the colonial bourgeoisie’).
Where we are
What does this tell us about where we are? On the one hand, there are objective reasons for demoralisation because the actual reality in which we are living is a demoralising context. The left as a whole is going down and CPGB’s recent practice of participating in left unity movements is problematised - there are no longer any genuine left unity movements, only fronts for this and that organisation. The British left is further from learning lessons from its disasters than the left elsewhere.
But exactly the reverse is also true. We have said for years and years that the left in its present form is going to have to die in order for a left which is effective to be reborn.
The existing left is dying and it is giving galvanic kicks, as it were; the chicken runs around with its head cut off. What we see in the form of these multiple fake unity projects, constructed on very similar social democratic lines, is unwillingness of the militants to face up to the fact that the existing left is dying.
This is not the same as what the Italian Mandelites are saying about the need for an entirely new generation. That is nonsense. It is not that it has to be new militants, who could all too easily - like the ‘new left’ and the ‘1968 left’ - repeat the same old errors. There has to be a new political culture, a new set of strategic axes, and it means a break with the strategic lines and orientations both of the Labour left and of all the different left groups.
But again, on the other side of this coin, the advances made by Hopi in this country, starting from an extraordinarily small basis, is a demonstration that there is material ground for the rebirth of the left. In fact, despite its limited nature, the rise in trade union militancy is also a demonstration that the working class as a class is forced to act collectively, to engage in collective, voluntary self-organisation in order to defend its interests. And that is the most fundamental element of Marxism. It is the element of Marxism which all the left’s ‘popular front’ strategies of one sort or another forget.
So within Britain we have a pretty negative situation, but at the same time indicators of the underlying bases of a principled strategy - reasons to be cheerful. Outside of Britain it seems to me that the turn of the LCR and Sinistra Critica are also reasons to be cheerful, because they indicate that outside our own ranks people are beginning to see the fundamental elements of such a strategy - class politics. Sinistra Critica is calling for a class left, a communist left, an internationalist left, which at least within the workers’ movement is radically democratic.
The political turns of the Ligue and Sinistra Critica tell us that, although the European left is dying, there are small green shoots of life growing out of that death. We do not yet see them in the British left, with the possible exception of Permanent Revolution’s change of opinion on the public expression of differences.
What that tells us, in the same way as the decisions of the PCSU and Aslef to affiliate to Hopi tell us, is that class politics, radical democracy and proletarian internationalism is a serious, feasible, defensible policy. A policy which can potentially win masses to its banner.
At the end of the day human beings have to make subjective choices within the frame of existing objective dynamics. If the objective dynamics were wholly negative, demoralisation would not merely be an understandable response, but actually a perfectly appropriate one.
In reality, it seems to me, the evidence is to the contrary. The objective dynamics of the political situation are for the strategic line that we are defending. Our strategic line is strong, because it conforms to what is objectively called for. That does not eliminate choice. It is not a matter of going with the flow. In a sense, what we are proposing is to choose to build bridges out of steel and not out of papier mache; to choose to attack the enemy where it is weak, not where it is strong.
Because our strategic choices are grounded on such objective dynamics, we can succeed - Hopi is a demonstration on a small scale that we can. Communist Students, likewise, is a demonstration of the same possibility. The circulation and influence of the Weekly Worker is another demonstration that we can succeed.
While the left’s endless repeats of the same failed halfway house nonsense might feel demoralising, it is not actually a reason to be demoralised. Why? Because choices exist in which we - the CPGB - can make a difference.
This is why it is fundamentally important for us to raise the money to keep producing the paper, to improve and enlarge our work, to extend the leverage that we have, in the knowledge that the strategy we have developed is fundamentally correct and we can make a difference.
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