Strategy and freedom of criticism

Mike Macnair continues his review of: Daniel Bensaïd, Alda Sousa, Alan Thornett and others, 'New parties of the left: experiences from Europe', London 2011, pp202, £7

In the first part of my review of this book last week, I worked through the individual chapters of the book with the addition of João Machado’s article on the Fourth International’s experience in the Brazilian Workers Party.[1] This second part of the review asks the question: what general lessons can be learned from these experiences?

To summarise these. First are a couple of immediate empirical lessons which the Mandelites themselves draw, quite correctly. The first is that united political action of the left makes a profound difference to the impact of the our ideas and the ability to mobilise. The Mandelites - with the partial exception of the Portuguese - tend to underestimate the significance of the element of political action in this statement. But it is nonetheless clearly true that ‘unity is strength’ and, conversely, that the wilderness of competing grouplets leads to demoralisation.

The second is that to have this effect, open and democratic functioning is essential to the morale of the militants (as well as to maintaining unity). Bureaucratic control tends to sterility, demoralisation and a rightwards dynamic. The Mandelites have not quite got what open and democratic functioning implies, for reasons to be discussed below; but the lesson is still an important one.

Next, and definitely secondary, are questions of judgment of the recent political situation. The Mandelites’ assessment of the evolution of the political situation, on which their tactics were founded, was unsound in a paradoxical way. It was simultaneously both insufficiently dynamic and supposing excessive fluidity; with the result that, again with the partial exception of the Portuguese comrades, it presumed more possibilities than actually existed.

Second, and closely connected, the comrades took the ‘old left’ - the cadre of the existing parties and groups and their implantation and ideological influence - insufficiently seriously. The ‘new parties’ paradigm is confusing in this respect.

Last is a group of lessons of strategic importance, which the Mandelites do not, or only partially, draw. Salvatore Cannavo in his chapter on Rifondazione Comunista in Italy argues (among other things) that the leadership of Rifondazione never really settled accounts with Stalinism and the meaning of 1991.

In the first place, this is symptomatic of a certain reality which the Mandelites’ policy in the ‘new parties’ did not recognise. This is that the fall of the Soviet and similar regimes does not take us completely back to a blank slate: it does not mean that all of the strategic questions which have divided the left at various points since 1870 have become obsolete.

This was already apparent when the post-2001 war drive and in particular the lead-up to the war on Iraq largely marginalised the Social Forums movement and showed that political attitudes to war and imperialism are still live issues. The 2003-05 splits in the Workers Party (PT) and Democracia Socialista in Brazil, and the 2008 fall of the Prodi government and defeat of Rifondazione, showed that the old question of participation in coalition governments - Marx’s and Engels’ critique of Louis Blanc in 1848, and the issue of Millerand and Millerandism in 1899-1904 - is equally still a live problem.

Secondly, however, to a considerable extent the Trotskyists have never really settled accounts with Stalinism and the meaning of 1991.

Unity is strength

‘Unity is strength’ is an old motto of the workers’ movement (though it has antecedents going even further back in history). It is the elementary basis of trade unions and other workers’ organisations: the capitalist class wants the workers to compete against each other, whether as individuals or as sectional groups; to get decent wages, working and living conditions, workers need to organise the maximum possible unity.

The history of the ‘new parties of the left’ is yet another demonstration of this very elementary point. By uniting, the left has shown itself able to grow and have an impact well beyond its initial numbers. In contrast, the disunity of the small groups of the far left renders us politically impotent and ineffective. Because it is opposed to the most elementary interests of the working class, and hence to the instincts of the broad layer of trade union, and so on, activists, disunity opposes the groups to the class which they aim to organise.

The history also shows something else which follows from the last point. This is that disunity and the multiplication of small groups is not a result of separation from the broader class movement, but rather tends to produce this separation. In a certain sense this should already have been obvious from the history of hostile, competing far-left groups within the British trade unions and Labour Party. But the inability of the Trotskyists to unite as such within the PT and within Rifondazione demonstrates, yet again, that involvement in a broader movement - in the PT, clearly a class movement - does not solve the problem.

I address this point to the Trotskyists, because New parties of the left is by and to a considerable extent about Trotskyists. But it is, of course, equally true of ‘orthodox’ Maoists and of those non-Maoist anti-revisionist trends which cling to the conception of the monolithic ‘party of a new type’. Anarchists have always been ultra-fissile, since this is merely the logic of their ideas.


However, ‘unity is strength’ contains within itself an implicit potential trap. This is the idea that if we all thought the same way and spoke the same way, we would be stronger still. This idea is instantiated in the form of the ideas of the monolithic party, and of the party which keeps its own differences hidden and speaks in one voice only to the outside world.

It is also instantiated in ‘strict unity of will’, which carries with it forms of ‘labour monarchy’: the idea that unity is to be achieved through the role of a single, charismatic, central leader. Or, in other words, the cult of the personality: of Ferdinand Lassalle, of the dead Lenin, of Stalin - and, on a smaller and declining scale, of Lula in the PT, of Bertinotti in Rifondazione, of Tommy Sheridan in the Scottish Socialist Party or of George Galloway in Respect.

The capitalist regime prefers workers’ organisations to have such a single identifiable leader. Such leaders de facto promote the ideology of the necessity of one-man management, which is part of the ideology of capitalist rule, and is expressed in the ‘single person’ - monarch, president or prime minister - found in all capitalist state constitutions. Single leaders are also more amenable to corruption, integration in the normal capitalist political circus, blackmail or ‘exposure’ of this or that scandal, than collective leaderships. Hence, the capitalist media will positively promote the ‘single identifiable leader’: Krivine’s essay in the book shows the difficulties the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France experienced in trying to resist this tendency.

The conceptual trap arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of workers’ unity. This is not an organic, spontaneous unity like the unity of a family, a tribe or a peasant village. It is a unity consciously constructed, among people who are members of diverse families and from diverse localities and often enough national backgrounds, in order to achieve specific goals in the everyday struggle with capital. Put another way, it is a unity constructed out of and on the basis of the real degree of individual liberty - to choose your employer, landlord, and so on, to migrate - which is provided by capitalist impersonal market relations.

The consequence is that real, effective workers’ unity must be unity in diversity: must be accompanied by variety, disagreement and discussion. Otherwise the unity will break up, whether in splits or in the attrition of individual members leaving or merely retreating from activity. That means open, democratic functioning. Here, again, the Mandelites draw a correct balance sheet of the ‘new parties’.

Stalinist monolithism worked because it was backed by the combination of the prestige of the Russian Revolution and of direct and systematic intervention in the ‘official’ communist parties by the Soviet state, both with the carrot of subsidy and the stick of exclusions (and in the Soviet-style regimes, police action). Attempts to copy it by groups without state backing merely produce small cults and endless splits.

In the Labour/socialist parties, attempts to create strong monolithism have been rarer. The recent history of the British Labour Party is a fairly striking example. It is perfectly clear that the effect is attrition of the party’s ability to mobilise at the base. This is, again, in the interests of the capitalist class, because it produces increased dependence on the capitalist media in elections.

There is a second element of the trap. Suppose that the leadership of the workers’ organisation is in fact captured by the capitalist class through corruption or integration into the regime; and that it has sufficient power, with the backing of the bourgeois state, to suppress or marginalise dissent. In this case, to choose unity is to choose silence and compliance with capitalist interests. This does not only occur with parties, but also with trade unions: the ‘new unionism’ of 1880s Britain and the Congress of Industrial Organizations of the 1930s US both involved partial union splits.

Hence, above, I said ‘maximum possible unity’. It is not an absolute given that unity is possible. Whatever judgment one might make of the tactics and of the failure to prepare for the possibility of a split, the anti-governmentalist wing of Democracia Socialista was right to split with the governmentalists; Sinistra Critica was right to split Rifondazione; the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was right to insist that any left unity had to reject outright minority participation in a ‘social-liberal’ government, even if the result has isolated it and the NPA has proved to be a failed rebranding.

The question this poses is: what sort of unity is possible and can work? The Mandelites make this question, as they make all questions, into one of the characterisation of the political conjuncture. In doing so, they dodge tackling the long-term strategic issues, which then come back to bite them in the leg. In the case of ‘new parties’ they also got the political dynamics wrong.

Political dynamics

At the beginning of the first part of this review I quoted Fred Leplat’s preface to New parties saying that in the last 25 years the rightwards evolution of the socialist and ‘official’ communist parties has changed the political landscape on the left; and “This has opened up a political space to the left of social democracy which the radical left and revolutionary Marxists have a duty to fill. This task cannot be carried out by these currents simply continuing in their traditional forms without seeking new levels of unity. What is therefore necessary are broad, pluralist parties embracing both the radical and Marxist left to restore independent working class organisation.”

This makes the question of unity into a question of the current state of political dynamics, rather than - as I have treated it above - a long-term strategic necessity of the workers’ movement. The current state of political dynamics is then said to have “opened up a political space to the left of social democracy”; and the resulting need is for “broad pluralist parties embracing both the radical and Marxist left”. What is meant by the ‘radical left’ is not explored.

There is a sense in which it is bizarre for comrade Leplat to pose this as a new question. After all, the International Socialist Group, forerunner of Socialist Resistance, was created as a regroupment project round Labour Briefing; this project began to break up as the Mandelite wing became attracted to the broader left unity project of the Chesterfield conferences. In 1977-79 the International Marxist Group, forerunner of the ISG, ran election candidates under the name, Socialist Unity. The Theses on Britain drafted by Mandel in the early 1972 and eventually adopted in a heavily amended form in 1976 urged the creation of a ‘class-struggle left wing’ uniting Marxists and left social democrats. In the 1960s, the Labour Party paper The Week, sponsored by the very early IMG, was a broad-front project.

As I said above, the Mandelites always pose such questions in terms of the conjuncture. Mandelism as a distinct tendency within Trotskyism began in the 1950s with the refusal to confront the possibility that the outcome of World War II required the rethinking of strategy - either in the direction of the ‘state capitalism’ theorists or that of Pablo and his co-thinkers. Instead, Mandel aligned with Pablo on the ground that the political conjuncture in France (and some other countries) required entry into the Communist Party, while rejecting his attempt to think strategically.

This dodging of strategic questions through elaborate analyses of the political conjuncture has been a hallmark of the tendency ever since. It allowed the comrades to remain committed to Trotskyist verities when it suited them, and certainly not to re-examine them seriously, but to depart a long way from them in practice on grounds of tactics in the current conjuncture.

In the case of the analyses which have supported the tactic of the broad, pluralist party ‘not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution’, there is an additional problem, which is that the political dynamics of the recent past are misunderstood.

The problem goes back to the 1970s, in two ways. The first was that the FI majority at this period became broadly ‘new leftist’. The symptom was the theory of the ‘new mass vanguard’: supposedly, the old workers’ vanguard organised by the socialist and communist parties had been exhausted, and a new layer of militants - student youth plus wildcat strikers in Europe; Guevarist guerrillas in Latin America - was emerging; a revolutionary party would be created by giving a lead to this ‘new vanguard’.

The formal theory of the ‘new mass vanguard’ was dropped in the mid-1970s, without real public explanation, after both the central role of the socialist and communist parties in the politics of the Portuguese revolution, and the rise of the Labour broad left in Britain, demonstrated its falsity. But the current generation of Mandelite leaders (and, indeed, of the leaders of most of the far left) were formed in the youth radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s and still think in terms of the presupposed bankruptcy of the ‘old left’ and finding ‘newly radicalising forces’ to latch onto. The idea can be seen in caricature form in the arguments of the Socialist Workers Party for and around Respect - as in Chris Bambery’s review of this book.[2]

The result is a persistent tendency to underestimate the real weight of the traditional workers’ vanguard - the activists of the trade unions, large workers’ parties and so on. It is also a tendency to flit from one set of ‘newly radicalising forces’ to another, disregarding the long-term effort involved in constructing a political party which organises a section of the workers’ vanguard on the basis of a strategic orientation.

The second was that Mandel and his co-thinkers made the profound misjudgement of thinking that Eurocommunism represented a move to the left under the pressure of the west European working class, when it was actually - as should by now be utterly obvious - a move to the right under the pressure of the capitalist class. This error was repeated in relation to Gorbachevism and - ridiculously - Yeltsin.

This error is interlocked with the Mandelites’ tendency to make everything a matter of the conjuncture in order to ‘save the phenomena’ and maintain Trotskyist verities, since it involved clinging to the possibility of ‘political revolution’ in face of its becoming obvious that the underlying dominant dynamic of Soviet society had been for a long time towards capitalism.

The consequence in terms of the judgement of the political dynamics of the 1990s-2000s is what I have described above as being simultaneously both insufficiently dynamic and supposing excessive fluidity. The insufficient dynamism is the failure to recognise the profound and general global shift to the right, starting with the US ‘human rights’ offensive under Carter, and accelerating after the fall of the USSR. In Mandelite accounts this is represented as simply an offensive of the capitalist class, exploiting their control of the traditional mass organisations of the working class. It needed also to be grasped as involving deep disorientation and demoralisation of the workers’ movement at the base, and movement to the right of not only the SPs and CPs, but also the far left.

The excessive fluidity comes from the same source: since the underlying dynamics - the failure of the ‘socialist bloc’ as a general disorienting and demoralising factor - were not grasped, the Mandelites have supposed that reserves of militancy lie just below the surface, waiting to be captured by the “broad, pluralist parties embracing both the radical and Marxist left”: this is the real meaning of “opened up a political space to the left of social democracy”.

To some extent the several chapters of New parties of the left show comrades in several countries getting beyond this approach and recognising the long haul ahead. But - as can be seen from the first part of this review - there does not yet appear to be a systematic and general self-critical approach to the problem. And, in particular, beyond the question of government, the strategic issues which could form the basis of effective unity remain unaddressed.


I said earlier that to a considerable extent the Trotskyists have never really settled accounts with Stalinism and the meaning of 1991. This is because in general they believe that they had already done so, merely by virtue of being Trotskyists. The Mandelites also claim that their Eurocommunist resolution, ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist democracy’, originally drafted in the late 1970s and adopted in 1985,[3] takes them further towards such a settling of accounts.

But they and most of the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ remain unable to confront the main underlying truth which the fall of the USSR shows us: that socialism in a single country (meaning, in Trotskyist terms, the dictatorship of the proletariat in a single country) is a strategic blind alley. The result is a concrete political unrealism, the ‘fight now’ perspective; this is reflected, as I said in the first part of the review, in the defeat of the FI in Democracia Socialista in Brazil and in the electoral marginality of Antarsya, in face of acute crisis, in Greece.

This is in some ways the most striking example. But the same is true of the policy of the united front, in which the major Trotskyist organisations apply Dimitrov’s idea of an agreement involving the suspension of criticism, from the 7th Congress of the Comintern, as opposed to Trotsky’s ideas and those of the 3rd and 4th Congresses of the Comintern, which argued for unity in action with freedom of criticism. In relation to the subordinated (‘third world’) countries, ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ have carried these choices to the point of people’s frontism.

And it is also true of the idea of the ‘party of a new type’, in which ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ organisations routinely use the arguments which were deployed by Stalin and his co-thinkers against Trotsky and his co-thinkers in the 1920s, rejecting the arguments to be found in the 1920s opposition platforms and in The Third International after Lenin,[4] and operate regimes which are less transparent and democratic than the western ‘official communist’ parties were.

The ‘party of a new type’ and the Dimitrov conception of the united front are interlinked. If the basis of the ‘revolutionary party’ is to be unity of thought and the absence of public criticism, it inevitably follows that a united front can only exist with (at least partial) suspension of criticism. Put another way, in the ‘Dimitrov united front’ the big bureaucrats of social democracy and the trade unions, and the lesser bureaucrats of the CPs, scratch each other’s backs, keeping differences private and away from the masses. In forms like Respect and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition the same dynamic operates between the lesser bureaucrats of the ‘official left’ and the micro-bureaucrats of the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales, and so on.

The Mandelites preserved, where the ortho-Trots abandoned, the idea that dissent within the party is normal, and partially (not completely) rejected the use of factitious disciplinary charges to expel opponents. Until the mid-1970s, they shared with the ortho-Trots the idea that public dissent is unacceptable. The rise of Eurocommunism, however, led to more or less open factional battles within the communist parties, and in these conditions the Mandelites were led to a degree of open dissent: it was obviously untenable that the Trotskyists should be visibly less open than the ‘official’ communists. At first public disagreement was usually rationed, in the sense that public disagreement was limited to faction ‘tribunes’ in pre-conference discussion periods; gradually, though still incompletely, it has become wider.

The Mandelites have, nonetheless, retained the fundamental Dimitrov conception of the united front, and the existence of large classes of disagreements which are kept private in the leaderships, not disclosed to the membership (or, a fortiori, to readers of the party press). The open expression of disagreement is avoided, not usually by disciplinary measures, but by the construction of a spurious unity through diplomatic documents and resolutions. This is true both in the internal life of their own organisations and in broad-front projects to which they are party. The chapters in the book on Brazil, Italy and Britain make clear where this policy leads: in the end to confused and demoralising splits.

It is, of course, possible that these choices to ‘go Stalinist’ are right and (as their proponents argue) realistic. But they make it clear that the Trotskyists can no more be said to have settled accounts with Stalinism and with 1991 than the former Stalinists - and in some respects less.

The fall of the Soviet regime and its imitators does not take us back to a blank slate. But it does destroy, or more exactly render irrelevant, Trotskyist arguments that there could be a ‘political revolution’ against these regimes in advance of the restoration of capitalist regimes (and similar arguments made by ‘state capitalist’ theorists). Hence it necessarily calls into serious question how far communists today should think of 1917-21 in Russia as a model for a future workers’ socialist revolution, or the lines of the first four Congresses of the Comintern as defining strategy for today.

(Note: I say how far, not whether: workers’ revolution was plainly a real and important element of what happened in Russia, and I agree with the fundamental communist judgment that the working class could have taken power in western Europe in 1918-20; if it had done so it would have made very fundamental differences to what was possible in Russia.)

About this issue the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ refuse all thought; the Mandelites, by and large, draw a leftish version of Eurocommunist conclusions, overlaid by a certain fetishism of strikes, demonstrations and uprisings, without much real, explicit theorising.


The problem with the “broad, pluralist parties embracing both the radical and Marxist left”, the ‘parties not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution’, turns out to be that some of the old strategic political differences between social democracy and communism, between Stalinism and Trotskyism, are actually not differences which have to wait for conditions of revolutionary crisis until they materialise, but are live political questions in current parliamentary and electoral politics - like minority participation in government, like backing or rejecting your own state’s overseas adventures, and so on.

Hence it is necessary to settle accounts with Stalinism, not in the sense of wiping the slate clean, but of re-examining the strategic issues between social democracy and communism, between Stalinism and Trotskyism, to decide what to retain and what to discard in the ‘traditional’ positions of the left.

This re-examination needs certain basic coordinates. First, of course, is the failure of the USSR and its satellites and imitators. Second is the fact that the concessions to the working class made by the capitalist nation-states since the late 19th century are being gradually clawed back, and that social democracy has been (as the comrades correctly judge) dragged to the right.

Third is recognition that the ‘party of a new type’ concept is both founded on a historical myth about Bolshevism (as is apparent from Lars T Lih’s work, but also that of others) and proves to be completely useless for working class (as opposed to peasant-based) parties not backed by an existing state. It produces only a sterile wilderness of competing groups which are as useless under conditions of revolutionary crisis as they are in more ordinary political conditions.

I have attempted to begin on this task in my book Revolutionary strategy (2008). I am sure the book, of which I am working on a second edition, is not the last word that can be said on the subject. But its fundamental point is that parties need to be organised on the basis of strategic and programmatic coordinates for the long term, not tactics seen as growing out of the immediate conjuncture. This is, I think, negatively and dreadfully confirmed by the histories in New parties of the left of the Mandelites and others’ experiments with new parties on the basis of tactical agreements. It is equally negatively confirmed from the same histories by the utter incapacity of the groups committed to dogmatic adherence to Trotskyism to do anything more than … produce more splits.



1 . ‘The Fourth International and failed perspectives’, June 7.

2 . http://internationalsocialist.org.uk/index.php/2011/09/renewing-the-left-a-look-back-to-move-forward.

3 . www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article921. I characterise this resolution as Eurocommunist primarily because of its commitments to ‘socialist legality’, which is code for the ‘rule of law’, which in turn is and can only exist as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

4 . Chapter 11: www.marxists.org/archive/rotsky/1928/3rd/ti07.htm#p2-11.