Mike Phipps: electable

What sort of party do we need? - Mike Phipps

Stay with what exists - Mike Phipps of Labour Briefing gives his view, taken from a talk at Communist University 2012

In my view we need a mass party of the working class which breaks from the economic, social and international outlook of capitalism and adopts popular socialist policies, strengthening its relations with the trade unions and operating an inclusive policy towards socialist societies and organisations. It must be a party that takes power and makes fundamental changes to society.

Let me develop these points. Firstly, anti-capitalism is not enough. It may provide a framework for a necessary united front to bring together the widest possible forces against an offensive of the bourgeoisie that has lasted for over 30 years and is now intensifying, but it is not in itself a programme or even a platform of ideas. Too often anti-capitalism is something that allows the left to retreat into its comfort zone, without having to deal with the tricky issue of a political alternative. But if we do not deal with them, we will not make much progress. More importantly, we will not be able to put forward a credible alternative.

Recently a prominent UK Uncut activist was interviewed on Newsnight. Asked what alternative policies she would put forward, she said it was not her role to do so - it was up to the politicians. This is not a new outlook, but it is wrong. Right now, with the dominant narrative that we are ‘living beyond our means’, it is vital to spell out - even cost out - viable solutions. Where are we going to get the money from to do what we need to? We can and should answer that. But we must be able to articulate an alternative vision. Call it socialism, if you like, if you do not think the word is too compromised or besmirched.

Articulating an alternative vision means a turn to sustainable reindustrialisation, based on educated and skilled labour; a new model of the welfare state that expands democracy into the social and economic spheres; economic policies that expand domestic markets, not on the basis of a renewed consumerism, but through collective needs and collective consumption, such as good public transport and affordable housing, based on a new model of public sector that includes consumer representation and involves the socialisation of both banking and energy sectors. None of this sounds unreasonable. Much of it was spelt out in more detail in a recent article by Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky. Most of it would be quite popular - and if you are serious about winning power, it helps to be popular.

Costing it would also make it credible. Most people want Britain out of Afghanistan and the cancellation of expensive nuclear weapons programmes. But that would not fund everything. Nor can there be any return to post-war Keynesianism when the so-called advanced countries funded their reforms at the expense of the semi-colonial periphery.

So if we are going to do what is necessary, not only do we need break with militarism: we are also going to have to make the rich and the corporate sector pay more - and that is likely to lead to confrontation. “Can this be achieved without revolutions?” asks Kagarlitsky. “Perhaps in some cases, but only in the context of revolutions elsewhere, in something like the way that Scandinavian social democracy benefited from the Russian Revolution of 1917.”

Likewise, it goes without saying that any movement for fundamental socialist change must be international in character. And obviously this movement would need to be part of a broader international effort to implement a solution to the capitalist crisis that meets the needs of working people elsewhere.

Vanguard party

But if a revolution seems likely, then surely we need to prepare by building a revolutionary party?

Well, not necessarily. As I’m addressing a communist university, let me remind you of how Marx posed the question in The communist manifesto:

“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.”

This issue of sectarianism was one Marx returned to repeatedly. He explained it many years later: “The sect seeks its raison d’être and its point d’honneur not in what it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth distinguishing it from that movement.” The true content of the sect, he argued, was to “carry this as an enriching element into the general movement”.

I do not quote this because I believe that citing Marx settles the issue for all time. I quote it for its insight.

In my view, the whole idea of a Leninist vanguard party needs to be reassessed. Even in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution - let alone today - it is doubtful if the policy of building separate communist parties was correct, based as it was on wildly inaccurate perspectives. Here is Zinoviev, for example, at the Second Congress of the Communist International: “I am deeply convinced that the 2nd World Congress of the CI is the precursor of another world congress, the world congress of Soviet Republics.” Pat Byrne, a Labour Briefing comrade, goes so far as to argue that the Comintern’s insistence on the creation of a separate party in Italy despite the affiliation of the Italian Socialist Party to the Comintern in 1919 caused immense divisions in the movement that contributed to the triumph of fascism a few years later.

But I do not say this to debate history so much as to make a more general point. The construction of a party today need not be a choice between two rotten apparatuses - that of social democracy or Stalinism. Happily, the experiences - particularly since the 1960s - of social movements, ecological organisations, the different elements of the new left, especially beyond Europe, have enriched our understanding of what is possible.

In the 1980s I lived for a while in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas, nationalist and leftist, were a vanguard party that practised guerrilla warfare, organised a popular insurrection, seized power and then won a fair election at the height of Reagan’s contra war against them before losing office in 1990. They were far more pluralist than the Cuban revolutionaries who inspired them - at one point there were five priests in the government. And they were re-elected back into power a few years ago.

In Uruguay today, José Mujica is the president, a former guerrilla fighter, who founded the Movement for Popular Participation - part of the Broad Front coalition, banned under the dictatorship in the 1970s. According to a report in the Washington Post earlier this month, his “entire cabinet signed onto a proposed law, which aims to take over the illegal marijuana trafficking business estimated to be worth $30 million-$40 million a year. The law would have government control marijuana imports, production, sale and distribution, creating a legal market for people to get pot without turning to riskier, illegal drugs. The text submitted to Congress declares that the drug war” - that is Washington’s drugs war - “is a failure”.

Mujica lives with his partner on a farm, grows flowers as a business, owns an aging Volkswagen Beetle - his only asset - and gives 87% of his salary to charity. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” said Gandhi, a watchword now incongruously borrowed by the centre-left Labour Party grouping, Compass.

You may find this example trivial, or you may find it inspiring. And you will need to inspire if you are to grow, get elected, win and keep power. Yet when we look around at the leaders of new parties in Britain, promising to displace the hegemony of the Labour Party, for these inspiring qualities - Arthur Scargill, Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway - for all their oratorical skills, it is not quite all there. The weaknesses of all these leaders would be manageable in a larger mass party. In a smaller one, these flaws characterise the party. It underlines the point Marx was making about sect and party. And this is even truer in the personalised sects that have dominated the post-war Trotskyist movement - think Healy, Lambert, Moreno, Posadas and so on.

Power is what we seek. And that is why we must insist on the construction of a broad party organically linked to the mass organisations of the working class.

Let me say bluntly: I am not really interested in putting together small vanguard groups - the Socialist Alliance here, the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste in France - in the hope they will win a degree of representation. I am not interested in representation: I am interested in power. Unity of the revolutionaries? No. Agreement on Marxist fundamentals as a precondition? Not interested.

Such organisations have fallen at the first hurdles - personality clashes, as can be seen with SA and Respect or the Scottish Socialist Party. The second hurdle may be programmatic disputes - for example, the French NPA over the hijab. This sort of difference might matter more if the party had any serious electoral prospects. A third hurdle is the more interesting problem of orientation to existing movements. The French NPA fell there too, pretty much splitting down the middle over how to relate to Mélenchon. The Greek communists have been sidelined by a super-sectarian attitude to Syriza. Programmatic perfection is not much use if you cannot get your strategy and tactics right.

Most of the larger left groups stumble at this point. Of course, this problem may be postponed. You can, like the Socialist Workers Party, grow quite large, recruiting socialists up and down the country, while avoiding the problem of orienting to the existing mass movement. For many years, the SWP refused even to take positions above a certain level in the unions, had no electoral strategy, rejected local government. Long-tern, this is unsustainable. When they finally turned to electoral activity, they made every mistake in the book.

And, yes, elections are important. Do not sneer at them as bourgeois democracy: they are the single biggest mass political activity there is. They should be fought - not for propaganda purposes - but to win. That is if you are interested in power, rather than clean hands. To hear people say that it is good Syriza did not win so they keep their hands clean is truly shocking. Meanwhile the Greek working class is being hammered.

To do the kind of things we need to do, we need a mass movement. Once the workers’ movement was this - necessarily so - not just the trade unions and the Labour Party, but friendly societies, cooperative shops, a real movement for the whole class, in the same way that when we once referred to the republican movement in Ireland, it was not just a political body, but social, musical, sporting, etc.

Unless you believe that socialism can be implemented entirely from above - I do not - then this is the scale of what needs to be built. But there is a problem. There are already existing workers’ organisations. Do we start again from scratch? Some say yes. Rejecting the existing trade unions as irreversibly bureaucratised, Industrial Workers of the World activists are building a new movement from the bottom up. Good luck with that. But more people might agree with Trotsky when he wrote in ‘Trade unions in the epoch of imperialist decay’: “We cannot select the arena and the conditions of our activity to suit our own likes and dislikes.”

Of course, the aim of the bourgeoisie is to neutralise all the organisations of the working class, to destroy them as fighting organisations and turn them into bureaucracies that deliver for the interests of their class. Success on their part is only temporary, just as success on the part of the working class to reclaim these organisations for fighting capitalism is also never achieved in perpetuity. The battle is ongoing.

Labour Party

This is equally true for the Labour Party. Many thought the battle was over when it was delivered by Ramsay MacDonald into a national coalition that attacked the working class. Less than 15 years later, it won the 1945 landslide and introduced democratic socialist reforms which endured for the next 30-plus years - and longer in the case of much of the welfare state.

Sure, some would see the post-war moment as unique in this respect. Fast-forward to New Labour and you see a party carrying out capitalist policies on every front on a qualitatively different level. Qualitatively different - but every erosion of internal democracy, every extension of leadership power, every policy betrayal was carried - at least until we were several years into the New Labour government - at annual conference with the support of the affiliated trade unions. And this had a real effect on what one could do inside the party. In fact, the party hollowed out in the aftermath of the Iraq war. A third of constituencies stopped sending delegates to the annual conference - after all, if there are no votes, why bother? In 2010, social class D and E voters abstained or voted for other parties in record numbers. But where else can they go?

In defending themselves - not just at the workplace, but on a political level, workers turn again and again to the Labour Party. They have to: they cannot wait for would-be vanguards to get their act together. The fact that the communist and Trotskyist movements fragmented a generation ago and the remnants are once more at the stage of cadre accumulation - well, it is really not their problem.

Even after 13 years of New Labour, the loyalty of workers to the party is astonishing - and should not be derided. In 2010, when Guardian readers were being urged to vote Liberal Democrat, the ethnic minority vote of London came out for Labour in proportionately larger numbers than other Labour voters. This was class consciousness, not backwardness.

Labour’s resilience is a stubborn fact and you cannot wish it away. To take a local example: in Brent, the Labour council implements Tory policies; the Greens have all the socialist policies. It is tragic to see even their best candidates get a 10th of the vote that Labour gets - and we are talking about a largely working class vote here. If these comrades were inside the party, they could have a huge impact. But even if the small number of socialists in Brent Labour Party cannot wield power, we can exercise a degree of control over those who do. Labour councillors do not like demonstrators and pickets outside council buildings, but they like meeting them in party branch meetings even less - especially when they face motions of no confidence and deselection, as is happening now.

“The Labour Party is a battleground you cannot avoid,” wrote Briefing comrade Graham Bash in the Weekly Worker in September 2003 - months after the invasion of Iraq! But the unions remained affiliated and working class votes would get Labour re-elected less than two years later. The aim remains: to give conscious expression to the needs of the party’s working class base, using the trade union link and what internal democracy exists, at all levels of the party. This is what Labour Briefing tries to do in print and what the Labour Representation Committee does politically and organisationally.

Since 2010, some 50,000 new members joined the Labour Party. These are not all careerists. That seems a fertile basis for political activity. The offensive against Progress launched by some in the trade unions shows how quickly the ideological tables can be turned. If the coalition falls before its five years are up or even if it lasts the full term, it will be Labour that people will vote for to defend their living standards and articulate an alternative.

It is an open question whether Labour will ever deliver socialism. But there is going to be a real battle involving the trade unions, the grassroots members and the voting base to commit it to delivering some socialist policies. And I do not see this battle as primarily ideological - Marxism versus Labourism. This again elevates programme over practice, ultimately a form of idealism. It will be a battle of class interests centred on policy and, again, power.

But remember: a party is only a means. Whether social democratic or Leninist vanguard party or anything else, as it gets nearer power, the pressure on it from capitalism to conform intensifies. How long did even the Bolshevik Party in power last before succumbing to that pressure? Less than 10 years. Even by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, less than one percent of the membership had been in the party in April 1917. Perhaps the rise and entrenchment of Stalinism suggests that, the more centralised and vanguardist a party is, the more difficult it may be to reclaim it, once it does succumb to the pressure of the international bourgeoisie - even assuming it has the necessary moral leadership, correct programme and sensible tactics to get it anywhere near power in the first place. Most do not.

Yet the Leninist paradigm continues to exert a baleful influence - elitist, authoritarian, self-isolating, with a tendency to elevate programme over practice. A mass, internally democratic, pluralist movement holds no guarantees, but might be a more fruitful field of work.