The communist fight for one party
The financial crisis makes halfway house left unity all the more urgent, writes Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group
Four weeks ago a meeting was organised by the Socialist Alliance which brought together representatives from the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, Respect, the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Green Socialism, the Green Left, Left Alternative, Workers Power, Revolutionary Democratic Group and United Socialist Party. The CPGB sent an observer. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Labour Representation Committee sent apologies.
A resolution was proposed which read: “This meeting recognises the current crisis within the financial system has created a real and serious danger of an economic depression on the scale of 1929/1930s. Working people will be made to pay for this through redundancies, mass unemployment, wage cuts, house repossessions, price and tax increases and savage cuts in public services.
“In these conditions it would be a betrayal of the working class if the socialist movement remains divided into rival organisations competing with each other. Workers and trade unionists will rightly have no confidence or trust in such a movement.
“This meeting therefore recommends that our organisations urgently set up a committee with the provisional name ‘Liaison Committee for One Left Party’. This committee will be charged with promoting the aim of one unified party. It will facilitate as a matter of urgency a national discussion and debate among all socialists committed to this aim, and taking all practical measures to facilitate the creation of one party.”
This resolution was supported by the SA and the RDG. Everybody knows there are real problems to be overcome if we are to put in place a process to take this forward this modest proposal - and no magic wands at hand. But even this minimal move was not supported. The other representatives felt it was too ambitious. This is instructive about the state of the movement.
Faced with the greatest economic crisis of capitalism that any of us have ever experienced, the socialist movement has not yet woken up to the dangers. The socialist bus is stuck on the level crossing. The passengers are refusing to budge from their seats. They have not realised an express train is hurtling down the track. Doing nothing and remaining in the old sectarian comfort zone is not a valid option.
Let us go back to the previous epoch, the bygone era of global booming capitalism before the bust. International Stalinism had collapsed and the Fourth International lay in ruins. A new popular internationalism arose against neoliberal economics represented by the World Trade Organisation. Mass protests involving trade unions, NGOs and environmentalists took place - for example, in Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2001 - and these fed into the world anti-war movements in 2002-04.
Despite this new phenomenon, a communist international still seemed a long way in the future. The Stalinist theory of the national Communist Party still had influence. It appealed as a practical expedient to building a Communist Party in stages, nation by nation, from below. Stage one would create a British, or perhaps a Scottish, Communist Party. In stage two a Euro-Communist Party would be built. Finally in stage three a world Communist Party would be launched.
In the UK socialists and communists organised in many rival groups and parties. Whilst the banks gloried in an asset price bubble, the socialist movement lived in a bubble of its own. In the decade before the credit crunch (1996-2006) the working class and trade union movement desperately needed a party to support its struggle with the capitalists. Many attempts were made to unite socialists and communists, including the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance, United Socialist Party, Respect and the Labour Representation Committee.
Many twists and turns, setbacks and splits, occurred in the SA, the SSP and Respect. Out of these came Solidarity, the Left Alternative and the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party. From a multitude of independent sects we achieved a smaller number of halfway alliances. The movement edged towards a party at a snail’s pace. The frozen ice blocks of sectarianism were thawing out, only to freeze up again through splits in the SSP and Respect.
The old epoch imploded. The impact of the crisis has not fully hit the working class. Neither is the old sectarian applecart overthrown. Capital has already lost trillions and will be looking to get this back from the working class. The question of political unity will be paramount. As the temperature begins to rise, the frozen ice blocks of sectarianism will start to melt. It is not a matter of waiting for the thaw. Communists have to get out the blowtorches and burn away sectarianism and fight for one party now - one party for world communism and one party for the working class movement in the UK.
The crisis of global capitalism has put an end to the previous epoch. But the old attitudes remain. We are stuck in the past, even though the old problems confront us with more urgency. Before the credit crunch, the idea of a world party seemed fantastical and utopian. Now the Stalinist theory of a Communist Party built by stages from below will be blown away.
The global crisis and the threat of war demands a new international. Communists in different countries will be drawn together by the same crisis. A world party must be built from the top down, from the centre out, not from the bottom up. On this Trotsky was totally right.
One party deal
In the UK the lack of one party for the socialist movement and the more militant trade unions can only be overcome in the form of a republican socialist party. A party of organised labour cannot be another old Labour Party. There has to be an historic compromise between socialists and communists. What is the basis of ‘the deal’?
First, the Labour left would have to shift to the left and embrace a democratic republican programme. This is no easy matter, but not impossible. The Labour left has tolerated and compromised with the constitutional monarchy for decades. Will it now abandon the economism of old Labour? Not unless communists are prepared to fight them on the question of the democratic programme.
Second, the communists should accept a party which supports parliamentary democracy, although not the current constitution. This is a compromise. The working class will not currently support an anti-parliamentary party. Workers see parliamentary democracy connected with basic freedoms, including the right to vote and the right to participate in trade unions. There will be no mass support for an anti-parliamentary party. The BNP has understood this. So did the old CPGB in its British road to socialism. Workers are suspicious of the dictatorial intentions of any party whose programme proclaims its intention to abolish parliament.
This is the dilemma around which ‘halfway housism’ revolves. The House of Commons is the real halfway house to be overcome. One ‘solution’ has been to abandon anti-parliamentarianism and rebrand as parliamentary communists. This was the line of the British road to socialism and Eurocommunism. The alternative was to defend anti-parliamentary communism and remain isolated from the working class. This was the politics of Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party.
The republican socialist party offers an alternative solution. The socialists and communists agree on a joint struggle to expand parliamentary democracy to its limit. In this united front the communists maintain their own views about parliamentary democracy and soviets. Communists continue to defend the lessons of the Russian Revolution against parliamentarianism. The future class struggle will resolve the matter.
Third, communists must have the right and freedom to publicise their own views. This is not a special privilege for communists, but a right for all party members. This brings us back to Lenin’s views on the relations between the Labour Party and the CPGB in 1920. Communists could be in the Labour Party on condition they had their own organisation and freedom for propaganda.
The crisis of capitalism will sharpen the divisions between the communist vanguard and its rearguard. Who is the vanguard? The test is practice. The Weekly Worker should be in the leadership of the fight for one party - internationally as the world Communist Party, and in the UK for one party for the socialist movement. The vanguard must come out openly fighting for one party. The rearguard will try to hold the movement back, diverting it, fanning the flames of sectarianism and defending multi-sectism.
The SWP remains the rearguard - the main opponent of a republican socialist party. It is not in favour of uniting all socialists in one party. It split the Socialist Alliance twice (2001 and 2004) and Respect twice (2004 and 2007). It is not in favour of a new workers’ party. They are not in favour of a democratic republican programme. They have been more than willing to adopt Labourism as the ideology of its so-called united front.
Of course, the CPGB has not covered itself in glory by opposing a republican socialist party. Like the SWP the CPGB never hesitates to oppose it. The only way forward for the movement is condemned as a compromise between communists and socialists and thus a “halfway house”. It produced an unholy alliance between the SWP and the CPGB. In a pincer movement the SWP opposed the republican socialist party from the right and the CPGB from the left.
In the previous epoch the CPGB used classic rearguard arguments. It reasoned thus. The socialists and reformists must create one party for the left. We will have nothing to do with it. But if the reformist left succeeds we will queue up to join up. Communists declare that the right to lead the working class into one party belongs to the reformists and Labourism. When they screw up and the movement is set back, the communists think this exposes the reformists instead of themselves. Unfortunately workers will not blame the reformists for trying, but the communists for sectarianism.
What should the rearguard do? Oppose any moves for one party, as Workers Power and the Socialist Party did at the SA meeting. Abandon the working class for the student movement, where left sectarian talk about ‘no compromise’ appeals to young militants? Tell everybody the lie that Labourism is the only politics that can unite the socialist movement and the trade union left? Treat the historic struggle of the working class for democracy with contempt? Pretend that democracy actually exists in the UK?
In the last couple of weeks we have seen this debate reflected in the Weekly Worker in the arguments from Steve Freeman (‘One party for the movement’, October 23), the letter from Mark Lewis in the same issue, and the reply from James Turley (‘What sort of unity?’, October 30). The latter’s article begins: “How should the left react to the financial crisis? Should we suspend our polemics against other left groups in order to forge a more effective response?”
The answer, of course, is that we need to wage an all-out war to drive sectarian communism out of the movement. James begins: “It is easy, given the failures of the last few years - decades, even - to hope that the changed situation will sweep away all the obstacles that have been keeping us from our goal - the Labour Party, the appearance of inevitability of bourgeois rule and ‘the sects’ (that is, all left groups apart from one’s own).”
Well hope is no bad thing. And the crisis will force change. But James omits one missing factor - the communist vanguard and its fight against sectarianism. Far from setting aside polemics, we have to wage a more determined struggle for one party. Measured in this way, not all communist polemics are useful. Sectarian polemics are counterproductive.
If Mark Lewis opposes ideological struggle against sectarianism, he is very mistaken. But if he is only opposing sectarian polemics - in the style of who was nasty, frightened or drunk, and who said boo to a goose - he has a point. But I agree with James that it is no time for the vanguard to give up the fight for one party, against communist sectarianism and against bombing Iran, for the sake of unity.
Interestingly in the debate over the resolution mentioned at the beginning, Workers Power objected to the word “betrayal”. They justified their own existence and opposed taking immediate steps to promote one party of the working class. The ‘betrayers’ betrayed themselves. If we do not speak openly against the betrayal of the working class by the so-called vanguard, we are ducking the difficult issues.
James says: “In reality, the crisis has had precisely the opposite effect on the left to what it has expected. The apparent urgency of the situation has typically justified a retreat from any examination of programme - a matter which, of course, has never been much of a priority, particularly for the likes of the SWP.” This is not accurate. Of course, the SWP’s disinterest in programme is because it fights against one party.
The call for one party is a call for one programme. A year ago the CNWP came up with a 10-point programme. Bob Crow and a grouping around the RMT is planning a new charter-programme. The call for a world Communist Party has programmatic implications, as indeed does the call for republican socialist party. Those who want a party now, inevitably put the question of programme to the fore. Bob Crow is now promoting a charter because he wants a party. The dead Labourite programmes of the SWP and Communist Party of Britain are not the only options.
Commenting on Mark Lewis’s letter, James says: “His tone is more one of frustration than outright opposition ... ‘Sure, capitalism’s falling to pieces, but look at you people! All you do is squabble endlessly. Can’t you get together against the main enemy?’ Undoubtedly such comments often express a healthy desire to achieve effectiveness”.
Again James is spot on. If Mark Lewis is a naive outsider - and I do not know if he is - he is probably closer to the real needs of the working class than all the intellectual arguments piled sky high. And if James borrows one from the bottom of the pile the rest will surely tumble to the ground. He says that Mark’s “apparently common-sensical approach falls apart when we examine the content of what ‘getting together’ would mean”.
Surely James is not going to sell us a flea-bitten old canine as the only option? He asks if we should support the SWP’s People Before Profit Charter or the CPB’s orthodox Keynesianism. What a choice! Either the naive proletarian desire for class political unity or a dead dog. Is our only option the continuation of multi-sect politics, in which every group promotes its own programme in opposition to unity?
In the UK a republican socialist programme is waiting to be born. It will provide the answer to the natural proletarian desire for class political unity which Mark Lewis seems to stand for.