Licence to liquidate
A day school on building broad parties organised by Socialist Resistance provided little in the way of direction, writes James Turley. But the International Socialist Group's right trajectory is unmistakeable
The halls of the University of London Union were packed with a spontaneously-arising cross-section of the British left last weekend.
Not only was there the Permanent Revolution weekend school, and a very fraught-looking meeting of the national council of the Left List (sorry, Left Alternative, as what was once the Socialist Workers Party’s wing of Respect now calls itself), but comrades of the International Socialist Group and its semi-detached magazine Socialist Resistancewere also out in force for the June 28 day school, ‘Building broad parties in Europe’.
This event comes at an interesting time for the ISG’s parent franchise, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI or Usec). Its largest and most influential section, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France, has announced its intention to found a “new anti-capitalist party”, explicitly committed to replacing capitalism with socialism - a small step in advance of the deliberately vague Mandelite reference to anti-capitalism.
More promisingly still, the Italian section, Sinistra Critica, recently produced a series of 11 theses on rebuilding the Italian left, which explicitly rejected short-termism and demanded it be a “class”, “communist” left.1
This does not mean that we are seeing an overnight conversion from Mandelite dogma to principled communist politics - far from it, especially in the LCR’s case. What is clear, however, is that the arguments tirelessly advocated particularly by the ISG’s Alan Thornett and his supporters - the dedication to building “broad parties” which are not “programmatically delimited between reform and revolution” - have been explicitly rejected by the LCR majority.
Given the apparent lack of differences in the ISG over this question, it was interesting to note that among the speakers advertised for the day school, attended by 50-60 comrades, were representatives from both the LCR and Sinistra Critica. The former sent Penny Duggan, an English ex-pat who moved to France to do work at Usec centre (she was previously politically close to the Fourth International Supporters Caucus, which once wielded the bureaucratic ice pick in Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party); the latter a young comrade by the name of Angelo Cardone.
The day was divided into two plenaries with four speakers each and a short discussion, each followed by two rounds of four longer workshops introduced by one of the plenary speakers. The first plenary was opened by four speakers from various sections of Usec around Europe (including comrades Duggan and Cardone). After a short introduction by Thornett from the chair, concerning the massive space for a broad party to the left of Labour, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour of Europe’s extant ‘broad left’ formations; we heard about the staggering successes of Die Linke in Germany, the great role of Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal, and also the disaster that befell Rifondazione Comunista in Italy (later on, we heard about the Dutch Socialist Party, whose speaker got bumped by time constraints into the next session).
Underlying the phenomenal differences, however, was a very similar narrative. The traditional social democratic parties had embraced neoliberalism; the traditional communist parties (and Rifondazione) were disarmed before the former, or gone entirely; therefore there was a big space for a leftwing, “anti-capitalist” party.
But that, we were told by speaker after speaker, was not all! The new party had to take on other issues - it had to be ‘ecologist’ and ‘feminist’, too. It did not seem to bother them that developing a coherent political strategy requires more than just bolting bits on from the environmentalist and feminist movements - and which environmentalist and feminist movements?
Another difficulty - partially avoided by the Sinistra Critica speaker (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the experience of Fausto Bertinotti in Rifondazione) - was the disturbingly frequent lapses into the worship of charismatic leaders. Penny Duggan’s eulogy to the young, good-looking, affable Olivier Besancenot truly had to be heard to be believed. When a speaker from the floor asked, without naming any names, how it would be possible to hold such leaders to account, a very flustered-looking Alan Thornett replied: “Well, I assume you’re talking about Lafontaine or Bertinotti”; it was difficult to deduce whether he was simply unaware of the eggshells on which he and his comrades tread in this area, having steadfastly refused to hold George Galloway to any kind of discipline in Respect.
Duggan replied herself - thankfully, the radiant Olivier had “insisted” on working as part of a campaign team instead of going it alone for his presidential runs. Very principled of him, of course - but it goes without saying that it should not be his choice. Any kind of party democracy requires that representatives and candidates for office be totally subordinated to agreed policy. Andrej Hunko of Die Linke dodged the question by noting the “excellent progress” Oskar Lafontaine has made from his social democratic chauvinist roots. Fine, comrade Hunko, but we are talking about accountability, not awarding charismatic leaders gold stars.
The workshop I attended was comrade Cardone’s. It was chaired by long-time ISG fellow traveller Liam Mac Uaid, who unfortunately restricted contributions to direct questions. This, coupled with the necessity of translating everything back and forth from Italian, made for a rather uneventful session. Only Toby Abse’s criticism of the timing of Sinistra Critica’s departure from Rifondazione produced any real controversy. Nothing comrade Cardone said, at any point, mentioned the emphases on class and communism in SC’s ‘11-point plan’.
The second plenary was primarily notable for a slightly off-message speech from CPB ‘traditionalist’ Ivan Beavis (see p8), and another from green left activist Joseph Healy on the European green parties, which now stretched “from the Arctic to the Urals” (a strange statement, since the Urals actually reach into the Arctic circle).
Unfortunately, all was not well: the Czech party, now run by rich ex-Christian Democrat Martin Bursik, was engaged in supporting privatisations, and the story of the German Greens’ degeneration is well known. A split was brewing in the European Green Party. Comrade Healy painted it as one between the Germans and the Czechs on the one side and, it was implied, everyone else - but by the slightly exasperated tone of the opening, one judged that he himself was not that optimistic.
He seemed genuinely unable to comprehend the constant emergence of hideous rightwing currents in the green parties - ‘Why is this happening to us?’ was the message. As always, the green left founders on its rejection of independent working class organisation and cannot evenbegin to play a progressive role.
Nick Wrack delivered a rather clipped version of his vision for Respect Renewal - slightly more ‘workerist’ than you might expect, but still on the well-trodden Respect path. The workers no longer have anybody they can vote for. Labour is not completely beyond repair - Wrack puts the likelihood of recovery at “one or two percent” - but there is a massive space to its left and Respect can step into the breach. Of course, we can work with other forces, both in and outside Labour, on “broad” and “narrow” issues (whatever that means) through “united fronts”, but the time is right for a new party. This party must be “democratic” and “pluralist”.
There are a number of issues on which Alan Thornett, in his opening speech in the morning, and Wrack make similar errors.
Firstly, they both seem to imagine that Labour’s rightward drift necessarily leaves more space to its left. This would be true if the formalistic bourgeois view of politics as various ideas and ideologies lined up from left to right (or on some other kind of diagram) was accurate. But it just does not work like that. There has been space to Labour’s left in this manner at least since Neil Kinnock cemented the right’s grip in the late 1980s.
Still, project after project has failed to make that space its own, starting with Militant’s attempt to rebrand itself as ‘real’ Labour after its expulsion from Kinnock’s party. (To his credit, Wrack grasps this nettle in words - he pointed out, contra the adage that ‘politics abhors a vacuum’, that just such a vacuum had existed for over a century in America - but not in deeds.) This is because, despite isolated disaffiliations, the unions are organically connected by a thousand ties to the Labour right; the institutional strength of this link will frustrate any attempt by meagre far-left forces to break it as long as they remain, precisely, meagre.
If the unions cannot provide meat for the bones of a new mass party, then something else will - greens, muslims, feminists … but, in making overtures to these groups qua themselves, the putative party abandons class independence and condemns itself, ultimately and inevitably, to political collapse and catastrophe.
Secondly, there is the question of party democracy. This was another of the strengths of the Sinistra Critica document - but Wrack’s defence of it was conducted on entirely ‘pluralist’ grounds. Democracy, to the comrade, means being left alone to hold whatever weird and wonderful beliefs one might have, and not to have those of others ‘imposed’ on you. Sure, in his version there may be open debate - but debate as a parlour game rather than political struggle.
However, genuine democracy is about power. It is about the ability of the masses (either of the party membership or of society) to make concrete and positive decisions, to orient themselves andact. In any such debate, there is usually a winner and a loser - and for democracy to be real the losers must be prepared to carry out the will of the majority (on condition that, next time, they will be able to fight again and perhaps win).
Wrack half understands this in his repeated and no doubt sincere references to accountability. But accountability must be real. George Galloway must not have an unwhipped vote in the Commons, nor Abjol Miah in Tower Hamlets. Without truly democratic mechanisms, whatever clique controls the leadership at present will simply reproduce itself into the future; the stage is set for yet another split in the Respect/SWP mould, and no amount of being ‘nice’ on the part of the ‘Leninists’ will prevent it.
Lastly, there are the nearly identical statements of Wrack and Thornett on the state of the world economy to consider. Both claimed to be loath to predict economic catastrophe at every turn (Costas Lapavitsas, at the PR school session on the credit crunch, pithily noted that the left had predicted “10 out of the last five” crises); however, it was clear that rough times were ahead, and the consequence of this would be millions of people coming into struggle.
This is an overly mechanistic view - something like that identified by Nicos Poulantzas as the primary error of both Trotsky and the Comintern in their analyses of fascism, the equation “economic crisis = revolutionary situation”2. The revolutionary upsurges after World War I and II, in 1968, and the industrial struggles of the 70s in Britain, all took place against a backdrop of concentrated political organisation of the workers’ movement, whether under mass social democratic parties (after World War I) or Stalinist parties (the others). The fact that social democracy and Stalinism were ultimately counterrevolutionary in these upsurges is irrelevant - they were there, able to coordinate struggles and provide an outlet for political militancy.
Is the credit crunch a serious difficulty in world capitalism? Yes - it will go down as another turning point in the organisation of the economy and financial system, most likely. But it will not provide a sudden onrush of eager, militant activists, because that kind of upsurge is predicated on the existence of a substantial workers’ movement capable of organising and leading militancy. Without the ‘political glue’ provided by a party, the bourgeoisie will block each punch as it comes, and struggle will be divided and defeated.
The consequence of this is that effective political work is not based around waiting for the masses to move into action - being prepared for the ‘inevitable’ explosion - but in fact, to quote the Sinistra Critica document, “taking root in a society involves long-term, tedious and invisible work that does not necessarily pay off in the short term in electoral terms”. The self-proclaimed break from catastrophism on the part of comrades Thornett and Wrack is actually a product of desperation and disorientation - in a neat reversal of the usual Stalinoid pattern, the masses will come down from the heavens and save the ‘Leninists’ by giving them someone to lead.
Another new group
On June 29, the ISG/SR comrades were still to be found hanging around ULU for a closed conference, the purpose of which has now become clear: the forces present have issued “an invitation to participate in the creation of a new revolutionary socialist organisation”.3
There is absolutely nothing “new” about the proposed organisation - it is simply a codification of the stale line of the ISG and will function rather as a lubricant to ease the likes of Wrack, along with the likes of Rob Hoveman and Kevin Ovenden (both expelled from the SWP after ‘going native’ in Respect), into the Thornett group. It is still committed to a halfway house party, in which a bureaucratic-centralist sect will fight for and provide leadership - a strategy proven a thousand times false in the recent historical period.
While their comrades in Europe are beginning to learn the lessons, the ISG blunders onwards to liquidation, oblivious to the evidence of theory and history l
1. ‘11 points to face the crisis of the Italian left’ International Viewpoint June (internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1487). It is not clear that the IV translation is entirely innocent - see Mike Macnair’s article last week (‘Small green shoots of life’, June 26).
2. J White (translator) Fascism and dictatorship London 1974.
3. liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2008/06/30/an-invitation-to-participate-in-the-creation-of-a-new-revolutionary-socialist-organisation. For Mike Macnair’s analysis of the comrades’ call, see p8.
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