Liquidationism and 'broad front' masks

Mike Macnair recently addressed a CPGB aggregate on liquidationism and 'broad frontism'. Below is an edited version of his talk

The two topics, liquidationism and ‘broad frontism,’ are distinct, but nonetheless related to one another. In the case of US socialist Pham Binh and the comrades who recently split from Workers Power, we see a straightforward case of liquidationism - liquidationism ‘on the left’: ie, in an anarchist direction.

Broad frontism uses liquidationist arguments, but does not immediately take the form of liquidationism, because in most cases the broad front is conceived as being ‘on the road to’ the construction of a ‘revolutionary party’ - meaning by the latter a bureaucratic centralist group which lurks within whatever broad front its comrades happen to be involved in.

The first step, then, is to understand what the issues hidden in the word ‘liquidationism’ are: the historical origins of the idea.


Pham Binh has responded to criticisms of his liquidationism by claiming that liquidationism means only the liquidation of the clandestine illegal party - the proposal of the ‘liquidators’ of 1907-12. In the 1920s there were some in the Communist Party of the USA who maintained that it was necessary to maintain a clandestine, illegal party, and James P Cannon fought against those people. The supporters of maintaining a clandestine apparatus then charged Cannon and his followers with ‘liquidationism’. Pham Binh says his critics are like Cannon’s opponents - raising ‘liquidationism’ merely as a scare-story.

In the debate of 1907-12, liquidationism took the superficial form of proposals to wind up the illegal party; but actually there was a deeper political argument involved. To grasp this political argument we have to go substantially further back to understand what it was that was to be liquidated.

A continuous thread of Marx’s and Engels’ political arguments was the need for the working class to organise for political action: beginning with the 1846 address to Feargus O’Connor and continuing through the criticisms of the Fourierists for rejecting political action in the Communist manifesto, and the formation of the First International, on the back of solidarity with the north in the US civil war and triggered by the ‘Polish question’, and the argument for the international working class to develop its own foreign policy; followed up by Marx’s intervention in favour of political action at the 1871 London congress and the resolution of the 1872 Hague Congress.

The line of working class political action was opposed by Proudhon and the Proudhonists, and by Bakunin and the Bakuninists, on substantially the same ground: that political action admitted the legitimacy of the state and would inevitably lead to the election of careerists.

On the other hand, both the Lassallean General German Workers Association (ADAV), formed in 1863, and the Eisenach Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), formed in 1869, were committed to working class organisation for political action, though both ‘fell away’ from the full strength of Marx’s and Engels’ arguments for working class political independence in different directions: the Lassalleans by aiming for an alliance with the monarchy against the liberals; the Eisenachers by clinging to the liberals. In spite of Marx’s and Engels’s criticisms, the 1875 Gotha fusion of the ADAV and SPD created a party which could sink roots and grow in spite of repression, and by 1878 Engels could present the fused Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAPD) as a model for the workers of Europe.[1]

Through the 1880s and 1890s, the SAPD, renamed the SPD after legalisation in 1890s, grew and threw up imitators in Europe and beyond. A counter-policy was urged by the Fabian Society in Britain. The Fabians argued that the obstacle to real growth and the achievement of real reforms for workers was the SPD’s revolutionism and hostile, irreconcilable opposition to the bourgeois state. The Fabians pointed out that the SPD might be a huge organisation, but it was in opposition and not actually achieving much in the here and now. So instead of principled opposition to the state, the Fabians urged lobbying and coalition-building for gradual reform in a socialist direction, without “provocations” about revolution and so on.

In the mid-1890s, a debate developed within international social democracy between Eduard Bernstein, who was Engels’s literary executor and thus one of the central leaders of the SPD’s Marxist wing, and the British semi-Marxist, Belfort Bax. This debate was a straightforward dispute about imperialism, beginning with the Armenian question. Should the Second International support Armenian self-determination against the Turkish regime? And if so, why? Bernstein argued that the Second International should do so, because the Armenians represented civilisation and progress, as against the backward Islamic Turkish regime. The International should be in favour of the development and extension of capitalism to the maximum possible extent, because it represents progress over what would now be called ‘Islamic reaction’. Belfort Bax, to the contrary, argued that the International was for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Not only did Bernstein’s line involve imperialist hypocrisy, but also, he argued, capitalism is going to come to revolution through its own contradictions (the official line of the SPD), and thus if we constrain capitalism to the narrowest possible area and prevent it spreading across the world, then this will accentuate its contradictions, and the revolution will arrive earlier. Both sides are clearly talking nonsense in this argument.[2]

But in the course of this polemic, Bernstein generalised his position against Bax’s utopian revolutionism, producing increasingly Fabian arguments. And in his 1898 Evolutionary socialism (The preconditions of socialism) this key Marxist leader argued that it was necessary to abandon Marx’s ‘Hegelianism’, to abandon the ‘illusory’ idea of the necessity of revolution, to abandon the idea that capitalism’s contradictions will intensify, and opt for a workers’ movement with a perspective of gradual reforms based on Kantian moral grounds.

In Russia, the mid-1890s saw the social democratic circles, which originated in the student movement, turn to first working with the skilled workers in the various factories, and then to actual agitation in the factories, the establishment of workers’ newspapers and proto-trade unions in the factories. After this had been going on for a little while, a group of ex-students active in the emigration became fans of Bernstein, saying that if we get rid of all the nonsense about overthrowing the state, and just focus in on the workers’ economic demands (which is what workers were ready for), then in that way we will mobilise the masses and the movement will grow. These were the original economists.

In the revolution of 1905 the error of the economists became absolutely obvious, as the revolution was triggered by a police-sponsored trade union, Father Gapon’s organisation, raising demands for universal suffrage and political rights. The revisionists’ and economists’ claim that it is only the ‘intellectuals’ who want to talk about politics, whereas the workers are only interested in economic issues, was now transparently false. In a movement sponsored by the police with a view to making it apolitical, the workers themselves had made it political.

The revolution of 1905 had effects internationally. The politics of the SPD, for example, shifted to the left as a result of the revolution. Afterwards, however, the Russian autocracy clawed back its position step by step. It dissolves the first duma and elects the second on a more restrictive franchise. It dissolves the second duma and elects the third on an even more restrictive franchise. It imposes repression, while simultaneously making concessions to the richer peasantry in the form of opening up the market in relation to peasant land, extending marketisation to the villages.

Meanwhile, in 1907 the German regime created a broad coalition against the SPD in the ‘Hottentot elections’: ie, on the question of imperialism. The SPD was very badly wrong-footed here and suffered a big electoral defeat.

In Britain, on the other hand, the Labour Party had come into existence. It was run by the trade union leaders, and clearly and unambiguously committed to Fabianism and Lib-Labism. Although MPs were elected as ‘Labour’, the parliamentary Labour Party operated as a fraction of the Liberal Party on everything except trade union questions. But this Lib-Lab alliance produced a genuine step forward in the form of the Trade Disputes Act of 1906. This created the most favourable legal regime for trade unions and strikes almost anywhere in the world. It can be seen as an enormous victory for Fabianism.

As a result, in Germany we see an enormous revival of revisionism and the pro-Fabian right wing around Bernstein. In the Russian émigré groups scattered across western Europe we see exactly the same thing. These people were the liquidators, or at least the ‘liquidators on the right’.

Now, the ‘liquidators on the right’ presented their argument as winding up the illegal party because it was useless and a waste of time. But their underlying argument was not that too many comrades were going to jail, but that the party’s illusory belief in the necessity of revolution was an obstacle preventing it from going to the broad masses. The way to go to the masses, they argued, was to build a Labour Party. So the liquidators agitated to dissolve the illegal party because it was a provocation; they wanted to create a broad conference of all the trade unions and labour organisations in order to create a Labour Party on the British model, as opposed to the model of the German SPD, which under Russian conditions has to be illegal. Labour was to be seen as the vanguard of the workers’ movement, the vanguard of reformism in that sense.

This is not my peculiar interpretation of this period. The link between the Russian liquidators and German revisionism is there in Samuel Baron’s biography of Georgi Plekhanov, and again in Israel Getzler’s biography of Julius Martov.[3] These sympathetic biographies of Mensheviks make clear that liquidationism was not about the tactical issue of legality and illegality, but about the strategic question of whether it is desirable to build a broad labour party that does not scare the horses with revolutionism, or whether it should be a social democratic party with political commitments to the overthrow of the existing state order.

The underlying argument of ‘liquidationism on the right’, therefore, is Bernstein’s. The revolutionary programme, for him, represents a practical obstacle to winning reforms, mass support and so on and so forth. To quote him: “The movement is everything, the final goal nothing”.

Of the left

1909 saw a split between a fairly narrow majority of the Bolshevik emigration and the sub-faction or trend led by Bogdanov, Lunacharsky and others, variously called the ‘otzovists’ (‘recallists’), ‘ultimatumists’ and various other names. The split group established the periodical Vpered. Lenin in the context of this split characterised the group which became Vpered as ‘liquidators of the left’.

Why? Lenin’s immediate usage is simple. The core of the Marxist workers’ party project is working class political action - in and out of parliament. The ‘liquidators on the right’ propose to abandon this project by winding up the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in favour of a British-style Labour Party. The ‘liquidators on the left’ do not openly propose this policy, but their fetishism of non-parliamentary action amounts to the same thing: the practical abandonment of working class political action. The Vperedists promptly proved the truth of this claim by focusing their work entirely on formal education of selected workers in philosophy and theory at the schools they organised in Capri and, later, Bologna.[4]

There is an interlock between Bernsteinian revisionism and liquidationism: not just ‘liquidationism on the right’, but also the ‘liquidationism on the left’. Vpered was at least partially influenced by the European syndicalist left. To a very considerable extent, the syndicalists accepted Bernstein’s point that August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and co had made Marxism into a dogma. But they came up with a different solution to Bernstein’s Fabianism, Kantianism and gradualism. This solution, which emerges most clearly in Georges Sorel’s book, The decomposition of Marxism, is that you have to ‘re-Hegelianise’ Marx, focusing attention on the movement of the ‘idea’, as expressed in mass consciousness when it appears as mass action. You find very much the same line of reasoning in Arturo Labriola, a leader of the left in Italy.

The same influence is also visible in the Hungarian left. It is not as explicit in György Lukács, but it is explicit in the people from whom Lukács learnt his leftism in the left wing of the Hungarian Socialist Party. Such authors argued that Bernstein was right to make the big criticisms of the mechanist, gradualist Marxism of Kautsky, but we have to resolve this contradiction that Bernstein locates in Kautsky and Bebel in the other direction - in favour of a ‘real revolutionism’.[5]

It was against philosophical arguments of this sort, deployed by militants who were to become leaders of Vpered, that Lenin wrote Materialism and empirio-criticism (1908).

The practical result is an approach which can best be characterised as Bakunin reborn. In the semi-syndicalist left’s theoretical critique, Kautsky stands in for ‘the Germans’ (meaning Marx and Engels, but also Lassalle and Liebknecht) in Bakunin’s critiques from the late 1860s and early 1870s. As with Bakunin, political action is rejected in the name of mass action.


We have recently been through a whole series of broad front projects of one sort and another. I have discussed some of the European history, and some of the problems, in my recent two-part review of the Mandelites’ book New parties of the left.[6] How does the issue of early 20th century revisionist ‘liquidationism on the right’ and semi-anarchist ‘liquidationism on the left’ relate to these projects?

There is a peculiarly British political problem with ‘new left formation’ projects, which is the persistent attempt to pretend to be the Labour left. Arthur Scargill, of course, was a Labour left, and the fact that his Socialist Labour Party turned out to be attractive mainly to various sorts of communists was a problem for him. Both the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance displayed tendencies to represent organisations in fact mainly composed of revolutionists as Labour left formations. George Galloway, an actual ex-Labour left, projected Respect as a people’s front or ‘Rainbow Alliance’, or simply as an anti-war party, but the Socialist Workers Party obsessively presented it as ‘old Labour’. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition displays the same character.

In spite of using the French New Anti-Capitalist Party brand and image, Workers Power’s Anti-Capitalist Initiative is also characterised by a broad frontism, albeit one of a different type: one which, like the SWP’s old Globalise Resistance front, presents itself as defined politically only by mass-action activism.

These patterns display an interesting combination of ‘liquidationism on the right’ with ‘liquidationism on the left’. On the one hand, the approach is one of ‘Don’t scare the horses’ in terms of the political programme to be put forward. On the other, the far-left groups and their fronts are to differentiate themselves from standard Labour only by the commitment to mass action.

The underlying idea is that any serious mass alternative must grow out of the trade unions, and hence we have the politics of relations with the trade union leaderships. This, of course, is Labourism, economism and revisionism repeating itself on a smaller scale, within the framework of the left groups.

The comrades would, of course, deny furiously that they are liquidators. They are advocates of the need for a ‘revolutionary party’. The broad-front project is merely for now - a step on the road to the ‘revolutionary party’, which is for the future.

However, because the ‘revolutionary party’ is to be the little cog that drives the bigger broad-front wheel, which drives mass extra-parliamentary action, the cog has to be bureaucratic centralist. It follows from the whole conception that initiatives in action are the decisive thing. Because initiatives in action are the decisive thing, the leadership (to use the example of the SWP) has to be able to tell every branch in the country: ‘Right now you are going to turn out forces for the next Stop the War demonstration’ or ‘Send your forces to canvass in Preston’.

Hence such a ‘revolutionary party’ needs an enormous degree of mechanical bureaucratic centralisation, to a far greater degree than the RSDLP or the Bolsheviks had at any point before around 1920. But then the unanticipated consequence is that the mechanical centralisation sterilises the broad front initiative, because the people who come in from the outside of the leading party see that the broad front is all being run from people within the leading party - down to the level of extreme micro-management.

To give a single example, in the (small) Oxford Respect branch in 2004 we were discussing the motions which had been submitted to conference, including a couple that were opposed to nuclear power. Some of the non-SWP militants who had come into Respect wanted to argue against these anti-nuclear power motions on the basis that nuclear power was important to green energy. The SWP comrades, who had the large majority in the room, had not been handed a line about this and were actually unable to say anything, so they proposed that we should not vote on the question. The internal Party Notes had not told them what opinion they ought to hold, and therefore they could not say anything and could not vote - and the rest of us should not either!

No matter how much you want to attract broad masses, you are not going to do it with these methods. At work and in politics we live under capitalist managerialism. The alternative that the broad front run by bureaucratic-centralist methods offers is ... leftist managerialism. You would have to have a pretty bad boss to imagine that being managed by Peter Taaffe or Charlie Kimber represented a real alternative. We have seen this over and over again. The difference with the Anti-Capitalist Initiative is that it is simply smaller than the projects that have gone before.


Broad front advocates have a series of ‘proof texts’ of their approach from the history of the workers’ movement and in particular from Marx and Engels. Endlessly referred to is the statement in the Communist manifesto, that the “The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties ...”

Next comes the claim that in the First International Marx and Engels created a party based on nothing but a defence of the immediate interests of the working class.

Third is Marx’s 1875 letter to Bracke, which formed the covering letter of the Critique of the Gotha programme, that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

The most obscure of these claims is that based on the Communist manifesto, because the Manifesto is addressed to a historical political situation profoundly different from our own and the quotation is torn from its context by broad-front advocates. The passage needs to be quoted in full:

In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only:

(1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The immediate aim of the communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

Once the whole passage has been quoted, it should be apparent that it is on its face internally contradictory. The communists “do not form a separate party”; yet, on the other hand, the communists “are distinguished from the other working class parties ...” Moreover, the Manifesto is precisely the manifesto of the Communist League (in modern terms a distinct party), and section 3, ‘Socialist and communist literature’, is characterised by an excoriating criticism of much of what existed as a socialist movement at the time.

Section 4 of the Manifesto,Position of the communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties’, begins with the statement that “Section 2 has made clear the relations of the communists to the existing working class parties, such as the Chartists in England and the agrarian reformers [National Reform Movement] in America.” These were closely connected movements.[7] No other party is characterised as an “existing working class party”, not even the Réformistes or “Social Democrats” around Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc in France, a group to which the Manifesto gives partial critical support.

With this the meaning of the contradiction in section 2 becomes clear. The communists do not form a party opposed to (gegenüber in the German) any actual attempt to organise the working class to fight for its (perceived) independent class interests, however weak the politics (and the politics of the National Reform Movement in the US were pretty weak). On the contrary, they seek to join and build such attempts. They do organise within, but in a manner not dependent on, these movements, with their own manifesto, membership, if possible press and organisational forms.

They do not take the same attitude to utopian socialist, statist socialist, etc, movements, which do not attempt to organise the working class to fight for its independent class interests: even if they give partial critical support, as in the case of the Réformistes, they do form a party gegenüber these parties.

The underlying principle then becomes clear. Marxists argue for the working class to organise to fight for its independent class interests and to take the political power. Therefore any attempt to do that will attract their support, however weak the politics.

Utopian and cross-class (populist, left nationalist) projects are a different matter altogether. Here the idea of the working class organising to defend its class interests is counterposed to the nature of the project. The strategic task of Marxists in this situation is to fight to split the broad movement along class lines. We want to see, for example, an end to trade union support for the US Democrats or the Argentinian Peronists. In the case of small sects which directly counterpose themselves to the mass movement of the working class, like the Fourierists at the time of the Manifesto, these can safely be ignored.

But these principles are insufficient for the solution of modern problems in two ways.

First, there have developed mass parties which claim to stand for the independent interests of the working class, but are actually committed to subordinating those interests to those of the capitalists, either by support for the capitalist state (social democracy) or by strategic commitment to cross-class coalitions in which social democracy and small pro-capitalist groups call the tune (‘official communists’). These parties are directly analogous neither to the (left) Chartists nor to the utopians and populists/left nationalists.

Second, the errors of the first four Congresses of the Comintern and of the Trotskyists and Maoists have produced a sectarianism of a new type, which does not directly counterpose itself to the mass movement, but rather intervenes in it, and poisons any movement in which it has significant influence by its adherence to bureaucratic centralism (and is for the same reason an obstacle to the creation of unity of the Marxists). This sort of sectarianism is not analogous to the 1840s Fourierists.

In approaching these modern problems, the formulation that ‘Sectarian groups put the building of their own organisation before the process of developing the working class movement as a whole’ is useless for two reasons.

First, the mass workers’ movement is dominated by class-collaborationism, which is a step backwards from left Chartism, so that simply to build the mass movement as it is would be to build class-collaborationism. As soon as we set out looking for an alternative ‘movement as a whole’ to the actually existing class-collaborationist mass workers’ movement, we are forced to make political choices about this ‘movement as a whole’ - which people who disagree with them can identify as ‘sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement’.

Second, the modern sectarians do not abstain from or oppose the mass class movement (in the sense of the trade unions, mass strikes, etc), but actively endeavour to build it. Varieties of modern sectarians can even be found in the mass social democratic and ‘official communist’ parties - not abstaining from or opposing these mass parties, but actively endeavouring to build them.

First International

The case of the First International is very clearly not one of an initiative of the ‘Marx party’ dressing themselves up as trade union militants to draw in broader forces, but of an initiative of British trade unionists and French Proudhonists, initially on the issue of Poland, made possible by the previous development of working class solidarity with the north in the US civil war, in the form of opposition to British or French intervention on the side of the south. Marx came to be involved and to draft the famous ‘Inaugural address and rules’ as a result of a set of disputes and manoeuvres described in Marx’s letter to Engels of November 4 1864.[8]

Even so, the address contains fundamental Marxist claims: that “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes”; that “Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts”; and, connected to the latter, that “If the emancipation of the working classes requires their fraternal concurrence, how are they to fulfil that great mission with a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs, playing upon national prejudices, and squandering in piratical wars the people’s blood and treasure?”[9]

A new party standing on this basis would be regarded by many broad-front advocates as plainly ultra-left.

The case of the comment in the letter to Bracke is simpler. Broad-front advocates by extracting this comment from its context use it in exactly the opposite sense to what Marx meant by it. The Eisenach SDP and the Lassallean ADAV had agreed to fuse on the basis of a programme which Marx thought made too many concessions to Lassalleanism. Hence:

“Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If, therefore, it was not possible - and the conditions of the item did not permit it - to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a programme of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the party movement.”[10]

In reality, of course, the 1875 unification did lead to a “step of real movement”: it gave the critical mass which allowed a mass party to develop. The point is worth noting, because of the CPGB’s approach to unity projects. We do not simply reject unity projects which have bad programmes. In relation to the SLP, the Socialist Alliance and Respect, we said in each case that, in spite of more or less severe political criticisms, this could lead to a step forward of real movement. We have, indeed, said the same about Galloway’s recent electoral success in Bradford West.

We do not say the same about the ACI. This is not because of political criticisms of comrades’ liquidationism and broad frontism. It is purely and simply because for the three fragments of Workers Power to set up a broad front on a political basis indistinguishable from the existing and much larger competing broad fronts controlled by the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales and Counterfire is obviously completely incapable of leading to a step in the real movement.


1 . References for the last three paragraphs in ‘Principles to shape tacticsWeekly Worker April 21 2011.

2 . Some of the texts of this debate are in H and JM Tudor Marxism and social democracy Cambridge 1988, chapter 2.

3 . SH Baron Plekhanov Stanford 1963, pp282-85; I Getzler Martov Cambridge 1967, pp125-28.

4 . See JE Marot, ‘Alexander Bogdanov, Vpered and the role of the intellectual in the workers’ movement’ Russian Review Vol 49, 1990, pp241-64.

5 . RL Tokes Bela Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic New York 1967, pp16-21; G Stedman Jones, ‘The Marxism of the early Lukács: an evaluation’ New Left Review Vol 1, No70, 1971, pp27-64 (at pp43-44).

6 . Weekly Worker June 7 and 14.

7 . On the link, see the review by Howard B Rock of JL Bronstein Land reform and working class experience in Britain and the United States, 1800-1862 (1999): www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=202956170085; and on the Communist League’s attitude to it, K Marx et al, ‘Circular against Kriege’, section 2 (1846): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1846/05/11.htm.

8 . www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/letters/64_11_04-abs.htm.

9 . www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm.

10. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_05_05.htm.