What kind of party do we need? - Ben Lewis

Fighting on two fronts - Ben Lewis of the CPGB gives his view, taken from a speech to Communist University 2012

It is certainly appropriate to finish our annual Communist University by debating this question. It is, after all, the most pressing one facing our class today, not only in this country, but internationally: how to organise our class into a party that can challenge the dominance of and overthrow the capitalist system.

We in the CPGB follow Marx in arguing that without a party the working class cannot act as a class. This party must, if the working class is to pursue its independent interests, be a party of millions with real social roots - its own press, educational associations, sports federations, cooperatives, etc. Most importantly, though, it must have a programme to map out how to win the battle of democracy, to address how we are ruled, how to overcome that rule and to usher in workers’ power. The fundamentals of this programme must be: working class independence; no strategic alliances with the bourgeoisie; democracy in the state and in our own movement; and internationalism.

Four templates

What kind of party, then? In order to make my case I want to look at four of the templates that are often offered on the left for the kind of party we need.

The first one is the ‘Leninist party’, the ‘fighting propaganda group’. The second one is the ‘new’ workers’ party, which is often based on the idea of the trade unions breaking with the Labour Party. The third is a broad network seeking to unite in action, as comrade Simon Hardy has written, “convinced individual anarchists, syndicalists, left reformists and perhaps even those who do not accept the class struggle”. Fourthly, those who see the Labour Party as the only game in town, where we must concentrate all our efforts in order to push the party to the left, towards ‘socialism’.

The first template - the Trotskyist-Leninist party, the fighting propaganda group - is, I think, the most important one in terms of understanding where we are and overcoming our divisions. I am a Leninist. For me Lenin was a partyist, a democrat and, like a good Second International revolutionary Marxist, he fought for the unity of the party on the basis of the acceptance of a revolutionary programme: unity in action, but freedom to publicly criticise. But today’s left, tragically, bears very little relationship to this approach. It is unfortunately the case that even the most vehemently and honestly anti-Stalinist of our comrades today base themselves on a party conception which is steeped in Stalinism and the unhealthiest aspects of our class’s culture in the 20th century.

The result is an organisation that restricts debate and open expressions of dissent in the name of activism, where comrades are constantly running around, not ‘wasting time’ with voicing their criticisms in the party press, etc. That model can be traced back to Joseph Stalin himself.

This party conception, shared by far too many today, is a significant block on our ability to move forward, because it actually leads to an endless cycle of splits - often over silly and unnecessary things. It is not that there are not big divisions or fundamental questions that need to be addressed, but gagging dissident or minority views breeds further splintering and overall fragmentation. Even though the open expression of differences is no guarantee against splits, what certainly will guarantee them is if comrades in a minority are effectively banned from fighting to become the majority. It is bureaucratic centralism passing itself off as democratic centralism.

In order to remain a member of such organisations you must agree - or at least claim to agree in public - with a particular theory or set of ideas down to the finest detail. For these comrades, anything less than upholding their own particular dogma is some manifestation of centrism or whatever. Nonetheless, in their practical, day-to-day approach, centrism is actually what they practise.

This brings me to the ‘broad workers’ party’ model. Fundamentally, many on the left argue for such reformist organisations (Socialist Alliance, Respect, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) as a way of gaining some short-term influence beyond their own ranks: ie, beyond the small numbers who will actually agree and defend particular sect shibboleths. The ‘broad workers’ party’ approach, then, seeks a bigger pond in which to swim. And it is conceived - to take an example from Richard Brenner of Workers Power - as “not the revolutionary party we need, but a way of getting there”, a kind of first step. Thus, or so the logic goes, concessions to reformism and Labourism are fully justified.

This approach is often accompanied by the view that the trade unions ought to break from Labour. The idea, of course, is that the tightly knit, activist, propagandist group can start from reformist demands that do not scare off the trade union bureaucracy and gradually win broader layers to accept the need for revolution and a revolutionary party.

Now, not only is such a method dishonest - watering down one’s true politics and confining one’s ‘Marxism’ to little-read left journals: it also clearly does not work. We have seen failure after failure, where purported revolutionaries limit their politics in the name of short-term influence and winning over largely phantom allies to their right.

Social democracy, motherhood and apple pie pledges about defending the NHS, being opposed to racism and so on are not signposts to revolutionary Marxism. The politics of Edward Bernstein do not lead to the kind of revolutionary party we need - no matter how much ‘action’ we engage in. But this is the common-sense understanding that the left has at the moment. They say: ‘Here is our particular interpretation of Marxism, but in order to gain recruits we need to offer them something else.’ It does not work.

Anti-Capitalist Initiative

In this context let me briefly refer to some of the debates we have had with comrade Simon Hardy and others around the Anti-Capitalist Initiative. On the surface this model attempts to break with the sect-building approach of the type that Simon Hardy opposed in the latter days of his membership of Workers Power, but at the same time it retains the idea that the way out of the left’s current quagmire lies in ‘action’ - again alongside largely phantom allies in what the comrades conceive as some kind of mass movement: Occupy, UK Uncut, etc.

The ACI, especially since the recent departure of Workers Power, tends more in the direction of network ‘activism’ than the creation of a new halfway house party, but the flawed, liquidationist method I have described above is still present. Its proponents always stress the ‘new’ ideas it embodies, the novelty of their approach. But I am afraid it is a very old, and indeed failed, method.

I was speaking to comrade Stewart King of Permanent Revolution at the founding of the ACI and he was absolutely clear to me that it is the role of Marxists to “minoritise” ourselves in order to appeal to the activists we are aiming to attract. In effect the Marxists in the ACI have ‘minoritised’ their views - the organisation has shied away from taking up any political positions at all thus far.

But surely it is incumbent on Marxists to say what we believe in, what we hold to be the truth. Unfortunately, we on the far left are already in the minority. We will have to start off in small rooms. But in order to take real steps forward we need to start arguing for what we actually believe in, and not treat Marxism as some sort of add-on, or the exclusive preserve of those actually running things behind the scenes. In order to move forward we must unite around the politics we purportedly uphold.

Comrade Simon assures us that no-one in the ACI has renounced Marxist politics or the need for a revolutionary party. But in a letter to the Weekly Worker he and Chris Strafford write: “… we are realistic that we simply cannot slap down a Marxist programme and rally thousands to our banner” (May 10). The implication is that, for the moment, we must be “realistic”, but in the future, somehow, we will manage to win our allies to Marxism.

So, whilst superficially the ACI offers a critique of the standard ‘Leninist party’ approach, in practice it throws the baby out with the bathwater and abandons the fight for a genuine Marxist party. To the extent that this is theorised, as opposed to being a mere reaction to the bureaucratic centralism of Workers Power, it is justified by Pham (‘Please intervene in Syria’) Binh’s liquidationist conclusions and/or packaged in terms of building ‘something like the First International’. Yet, as we all know, Marx did not actually set up the First International. He intervened in it, because it represented a genuine step forward in the mass movement itself. But that intervention strove to push the project in a partyist direction. The ‘First International’ argument is thus nothing but an ahistorical ‘left’ cover for broad frontist liquidationism.

Communists and Labour

Despite the efforts of sections of the left to set up a new (Labourite) ‘broad workers’ party’, the Labour Party, of course, still exists. Millions still identify with it, and that matters.

Let me be clear. The Labour Party has never been the kind of party needed for working class self-liberation and socialism. It has always been dominated by nationalism, constitutionalism and imperialism. Like the trade union bureaucracy it is tied to the capitalist state by a thousand strings, yet it continues to enjoy the support and membership of millions of individual and affiliated working class people. So there is a contradiction here that we must seek to resolve.

The CPGB’s approach to the Labour Party tries to avoid two traps: on the one hand, we do not collapse into typical Labour entryism, becoming left Labourites and effectively abandoning the fight for a Marxist party. On the other hand, we recognise the importance of and seek to intervene in Labour Party politics, rejecting the claim that it has become a bourgeois party pure and simple.

This is what the CPGB says in its theses on the Labour Party: “Overcoming Labourism is a central strategic task for communists in Britain. Toadying as loyal lieutenants to left Labourites, keeping one’s ‘true’ politics under wraps, burying oneself in the bowels of the Labour Party and subordinating everything to staying in there till the glorious day when the class struggle transforms it into an instrument of socialism is naive at best. At worst it is downright treachery. On the other hand, to stand aloof from the Labour Party and its internal disputes and conflicts is as good as useless. A typical left sectarian pose” (Weekly Worker October 21 2010).

How do we overcome Labourism? Just as we do outside the party, we have to champion the politics of Marxism. In this connection I want to zoom in on one particular question that plagues the Labour left: the notion that somehow it is incumbent upon us to argue and agitate for a Labour government. But a key tenet of Labourism is the strategic alliance between the workers’ movement and the capitalist state. While obviously it is possible to win reforms - depending, of course on the balance of class forces - our class cannot gain power and advance to socialism through administering the capitalist state. The aim should be for a government capable of implementing our full minimum programme for workers’ power.

As part of the fight for workers’ power we must demand the removal of all bans and proscriptions within the Labour Party - together with every other manifestation of capitalist interference in the organisations of our class. We are clear that the fight to transform the Labour Party, in order to turn it into what it originally claimed to be - a federal organisation of the workers’ movement as a whole - will not be won overnight. But we must seek to constantly bring out the contradictions between the working class base and the pro-capitalist leadership.

We are also clear that the revolution we envisage is not contingent upon such a transformation. The fight within Labour might fail. What is fundamental to us is not to bury ourselves in Labour Party work for its own sake, but to organise as communists in order to build a Marxist party with its own independent existence, its own programme.

It is absolutely necessary and entirely possible, even with our forces as dispersed and weak as they are now, to fight to change the balance of forces both inside and outside the Labour Party in order to rebuild our movement. But making even the most tentative steps in that direction presupposes getting serious about uniting the vanguard of our class into a party openly committed to the world historical outlook of Marxism, rejecting the ‘first step’ of Labourism or social democracy, or pandering to anarchism or syndicalism. We want to win over anarchists and syndicalists, just as we want to win over Labourites, but not as they are: we want to win them to Marxism.


This is actually where the viewpoints of comrades Hardy and Phipps actually converge. As a Labourite, comrade Phipps thinks that potential ‘Marxist’ parties cannot be anything more than insignificant sects because they are supposedly based on ideology. For his part, comrade Hardy appears to be reacting against the doubtless negative experience of belonging to such an ‘ideological’ sect. But neither seems to countenance the possibility of democratic unity around a Marxist programme.

Marxism should be and indeed is far-sighted, bold and inspiring in its global, historical vision. But currently the far left, with our stupid divisions, our frivolous attitudes towards splitting and frontist fakery, render these ideas pathetic, absurd, almost millenarian in the eyes of the very people we should be winning to our cause. We have a great responsibility and those who remain committed to working class socialism must unite our forces on the basis of our own politics. We will not win over any serious forces, let alone the millions needed for a party capable of taking power, unless we can actually unite ourselves.

Unity does not inexorably result from strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations. As Kautsky and Lenin pointed out, there is nothing innate to the struggle between employer and employee that produces a vision for a higher form of society. We cannot content ourselves with mere cooperation in solidarity work, important though that is.

Unity will not come through stitch-ups by bureaucratic elites. Unity will come through political struggle and the empowerment of the rank and file within our movement - in the far left, in the trade unions - against all bans, proscriptions and gagging orders, whether carried out by a local SWP full-timer, a trade union bureaucrat or a Labour Party leader.

We cannot win that fight by walking away - and here I have to be critical of Simon Hardy and his comrades, who simply resigned from Workers Power and now present themselves as something ‘new’. That approach simply speeds up the cycle of splits, whereas we need to challenge the logic of splitting.

Let me finish by saying this. Though I recognise the huge problems that we face today, I am at the same time extremely confident. I think that when the penny drops, when comrades realise that revolutionary unity is actually a desirable thing and can be won, then any successful steps we take can be replicated extraordinarily quickly.