Nick Wrack: How can we supersede the sects?

This is the contribution of Nick Wrack to the CPGB’s April 27 London Communist Forum entitled ‘What sort of mass party do we need?’

This discussion is part of a whole series of debates which are, in my opinion, quite rightly taking place in Britain and beyond. It concerns the question that is facing people who want to confront capitalism and the crisis, people who want to fight for a different kind of society, in which the mass of humanity is emancipated for the first time since the beginning of class society.

The discussion comes under the broad heading, ‘How do we get socialism?’ What is the vehicle, the method, for achieving this? Of course, this is a question that has confronted the working class for 200 years. It is a question that confronts us profoundly now, particularly when we see before us the nature of capitalism’s crisis, when the living and working conditions of generations to come are put at risk, economically, socially and politically. So the debates taking place on the left are of great importance.

And it is a matter of profound dismay for any serious thinker on the left to see the way in which we are compartmentalised into the panoply of organisations of Marxists and socialists, of people who want to fight this system and change it. It is an historical aberration that we have to overcome. Of course, there may well be, in certain circumstances, very good reasons for being in different organisations - when you are fighting for profoundly different things; when your approach is completely different. Possibly. But can there be any such reasons for people who base themselves on the method and the ideas of Marxism? Can there be any real reason why people in that category end up in different political organisations? Separate, split and segregated into smaller and smaller forces, which makes it ever more difficult to respond to the crisis.

In my opinion this legacy is something we have to overcome. Part of that is the belief held by too many people that if there is a difference then it means that you have to separate. It is a question of the nature of the differences that mean you have to have a separation, and the differences that allow you to stay in the same organisation.

For example, if we go back in history and we look at the differences between, say, Luxemburg and Lenin, as explained in various articles and speeches, and transpose them onto the left organisations of today, people would say that if they had those differences they could not possibly work with the equivalent of Luxemburg or Lenin, and that this would require them to be in different organisations. In my opinion this attitude is completely wrong. What we need to develop on the left is an attitude of healthy debate and discussion, critical appraisal, allowing dissent, so long as it is in the general direction of the struggle to change society.

Message and messenger

The ideas of socialism, in my opinion, are extremely simple. Most working class people can grasp intuitively, without a theoretical basis, the class nature of society. Most working class people know what class they are in. In a recent poll 60% of people self-identified as working class. They understand the hierarchy in society even if they do not understand specifically and precisely the categories and so on. But they understand that they are at the bottom of the heap; that they work. They understand that nothing happens, nothing is done without them, and the working class produce the wealth in society and, although this may be less clear, that this wealth is taken from them and is enjoyed by a different, separate class: those who rule, who represent capital, who they do not even see in the course of daily events. But they know that they exist and they benefit from the work of ordinary people.

And the idea of turning that society upside-down, of taking that wealth that is created by ordinary people and sharing it among the people who produce it, of allowing a new world to be built out of the surplus that is created by working class people - I think these are ideas that are easily comprehended. They are easily understood by the majority of people.

I think that too often the left, with its scholastic discussions, its scholastic debates, actually makes that simple message too complicated. Why can we not have the theoretical debates within the broad family of Marxism, whilst at the same time putting out the propaganda and the agitation for that strategic task: the inauguration of a new society, the abolition of classes, the end of exploitation? If we were to take those ideas out among the working class we would find a ready audience for them.

But look at the state of the left. I am sure people in this room have had the experience of selling your organisation’s paper on the street, when someone walks past and you offer them a copy. They say that they have already got one from someone selling it further up the street. Of course, we know that they are referring to a different group and a different paper and that person does not want to be hassled. The whole thing is complete lunacy.

I am here in a personal capacity only, so I am not speaking for the Independent Socialist Network. But the ISN is a group of socialists who want to see a party come into existence. We do not have any centralised positions; we are simply a space where socialists can come and discuss how they want to achieve socialism. What unifies us is the belief that we need a new socialist party.

At the moment, when we draw into activity new people who do not like what is happening - perhaps they have supported, for example, a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate who is going to fight against the cuts, who is going to fight for local working class people - they soon realise that there are rival left groups. They ask, ‘Why aren’t you all in the same organisation?’ They wonder exactly what the big problem is.

In fact, among the different left groups and the people who are in none, there is a fantastic array of talent, of skills, of education, of learning, of ability. Yet what we have is an utterly unnecessary duplication - the replication of the same tasks being carried out by different groups. Every week you can read the same sort of article on this or that event or subject in several different papers. And you wonder why this duplication of effort is necessary.

Is the theory of state capitalism so fundamentally different from the idea of a deformed or degenerate workers’ state, or a society run by a bureaucratised caste, or whatever, that they must lead people to be in different organisations? I think this is something that we really have to try to overcome.

It is extremely important that socialists and Marxists look at the state of the existing organised left. But this is only a small part of it actually. I do not know how many organised Marxists there are in Britain - a couple of thousand? Three thousand? It is a tiny figure. On the other hand, there are probably several tens of thousand of people who would call themselves some sort of Marxist. Probably many times this figure would identify as some kind of socialist. So is there an audience for socialist or Marxist ideas beyond the ranks of the existing far left? I say that there is.

For me the question is twofold. It is not just a question of trying to get the existing left together, because, frankly, I think that is extremely problematic. That will happen out of the process of trying to develop something bigger, to which the existing socialist left can contribute. That process for me does not involve watering down your ideas. It does not mean arguing for reform rather than fundamental, revolutionary change. Nothing of the sort. It means trying to find a ready audience for the ideas of a break with capitalism. I think that is the task that faces us at the moment.

The crisis is bringing home on a daily basis to millions of working class people that there is something profoundly wrong with capitalism. You cannot go to work, be on benefits, a student or whatever without being affected by the idea that something is profoundly wrong. That gains we have taken for granted are being removed. That things we thought were permanent are not going to be there in the future. That the various safety nets are all being taken away. More and more people are questioning: what is it that is wrong?

Yet the response from the left has been pitiful. Since 2008 we have had five years of financial and economic crisis, including the bailouts that have cost trillions. We are now paying for this through anti-working class measures, whereby the ruling class is using the crisis to advance its assault on working class living standards. They are facing a crisis of profitability. A crisis where their returns are not at the expected level and so they are refusing to invest. Austerity is their strategic attempt to drive down living standards, to cut down the amount of surplus that goes into the state, to cut the social wage, to boost their profits. The intention is to destroy a whole section of outdated capital, preparing the ground for a new period of investment: a new period based on having a bigger reserve army of unemployed, on breaking the ability of the working class to resist through the anti-trade union laws, attacks on civil liberties, on the right to protest. All these things are done to weaken the ability of the working class to resist.

New layers

But in the process new layers of people are pulled into struggle. Whether it is in the workplace, whether it is unemployed people, those organising around the bedroom tax, the question of workfare, the question of student grants, pensions - all of these things are driving people to question what is wrong with society and what the alternative is.

How do Marxists, how do socialists, respond to this? Now, we can, in our small groups and small networks, keep on producing our papers and producing our arguments - and I do not seek to dismiss that at all. I do not read the Weekly Worker assiduously every week, but I do try to keep up with it. And it does perform a service in terms of analysing what is going on, in terms of taking up issues, including the ‘archaeological’ work, if I can call it that, of digging out past articles and past ideas and applying them in the modern period, I think it is very important. And there is other work done by others on the left that is also very important.

So we need to try and find a way where Marxists can work together, but also a way by which the ideas of Marxism, the ideas of socialism, are taken out to more and more people, not just the existing far left. For me it’s not a question of a person being recruited from one far left group to another, which frankly would be akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The far left has been in a period of retreat for some time, yet our ideas should be becoming more and more common currency, now we are facing this crisis. But what is significant is the interest being shown in the ideas of Marx; the sales of Capital, the number of views of online videos, the blog posts and so on, a lot of which does not come through the organised far left. Actually, much of it can be explained by the fact that people look at the existing far left and are put off. Sometimes it is like walking in on a child’s birthday party where there are children screaming, there is cake on the floor and kids throwing things at each other. So I think it is incumbent on all of us to maintain a sense of proportion and a sense of perspective.

We must overcome these internecine squabbles. We have to look at how this crisis is affecting not just our class, but humanity. Whether it is the ecological disaster that could develop on the basis of the unplanned exploitation of the resources of the planet. Whether it is the vast wasteland of humanity, with people having no access to proper healthcare, education and pensions when they are elderly. This crisis should give the Marxists - the people who are meant to be the most serious thinkers - cause for thought.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I think that theory is very important - the clash of ideas generates thought and clarity, and it progresses those ideas. So a debate is absolutely necessary. But I see no need why a socialist party, a Marxist party, cannot share an understanding of class society, the method of Marx and Engels, and then accommodate the clash of ideas within that organisation.

Let us take an example from the realm of economics. There are some Marxists who would argue that the fundamental problem for capitalism is the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. There are other comrades who say it is the anarchy of capitalist production, underconsumption or whatever that causes crisis. I do not see why those arguments cannot be undertaken and developed in the same organisation. A disagreement over such questions is not a reason to split. In fact you could, and should, have within the same party articles expressing all such disagreements and taking up the different ideas. People love a good debate and a good controversy and that could help draw people into the party.

Now, it may be that most people on the left would not disagree with that in principle. But too often what passes for debate on the left is, to put it mildly, simply name-calling. It is not serious. Quite often you hear someone on the left say something perfectly reasonable, but it ends up being opposed - not because of their actual statement, but because of the organisation to which they belong. Supporting the idea may strengthen a rival group. We really do have to overcome such pettiness.


The first thing that we can agree on, I think, is that this is not a crisis that can be resolved by going back to a former type of capitalism. It is a fundamental crisis that is inherent in the system itself. We must reject the idea that somehow we can achieve what people want by reforming capitalism. We have to replace it by something completely new.

There are those who talk about the ‘crisis of neoliberalism’, as if somehow we went back to the period where capitalism was a bit more regulated then things would be different. What we have to get across is that this assault on working class living standards has arisen precisely out of a structural crisis within capitalism. If they could, the capitalists would like to take us back to a time before the post-war settlement and the welfare state. It was not just the social democratic parties that attained that: the ruling class itself was petrified of what would happen if they did not make those concessions. Then there was the post-war economic upswing that came to an end in the 1970s and capitalism has been trying to deal with this ever since.

Many people in Britain have traditionally looked to the Labour Party to defend them from the attacks of the ruling class. Communists, Marxists, socialists would generally have a shared understanding about the Labour Party and its inability to fundamentally resolve crises. In my view the Labour Party has never been a socialist party - it has always been a strange mixture of liberalism and some variants of socialism. Some would call this mix ‘Labourism’, which upholds constitutionality, a reluctance to endorse activity outside of parliament.

Many people are brought up in the tradition whereby if you are working class then you vote Labour and there is something sensible and something serious in that. Working class people are not stupid: they are very practical. And they know that a Labour government, generally speaking, will be better than a Tory government. So in the next general election I think we are most likely to get a Labour victory. The many leftwing candidates, of the type I have supported in the past, who will stand in elections, will not pick up many votes at this stage, with people wanting to kick out the Tory-Liberal Democrat government and put Labour into power. But at the same time people do not expect things to really change much for the better even once this has happened. This results in a cycle where Labour gets voted out, but then it is: ‘Don’t rock the boat: we must get Labour back in’.

I know that Marxists are involved in the Labour Party, including, I am sure, people in this room. There is Socialist Appeal and others who would call themselves Marxists. And this is an important debate - where should Marxists be?

I think that we must create a party that is new and is not Labour. I have been involved in several attempts to do this. And these projects have failed for numerous different reasons. I am not arguing that we should attempt to jump over history, to achieve something before it is possible. I do not want to see a party trying to become electable by being popular, if that means watering down what it believes in. As I have said, the ideas of socialism can be popular. They strike a chord with working class people who want to see their lives change for the better. I think that socialists have a duty to take these ideas out in a popular form and draw people into discussions as to how society can be changed, how working people can run it themselves, how the product of their labour can benefit all, not just the few.

If socialists, together, organised to produce and popularise the propaganda, to deliver the agitation in combination with the activity, I believe we could build a significant socialist organisation in Britain, numbering in a very short space of time several thousands of people.

Left Unity

Now, the latest of these attempts is the call by Ken Loach for a new party of the left. I have read the articles in the Weekly Worker about this and I think I preferred Peter Manson’s to Paul Demarty’s, but my approach is that this is something that socialists should engage with. The Left Unity website has featured many articles written by people putting themselves forwards as points of contact for this project and describing themselves as socialists. There are articles arguing that there should be a new socialist, class-struggle organisation. And so far around 8,000 people have responded. Now, I do not know what is going to happen, but I will be arguing within it that Left Unity should adopt a socialist programme, that it should commit itself to the transformation of society. That is what I think all Marxists, all socialists should do.

Of course, there are all sorts of differences that will arise. What should its attitude to the Labour Party be? How do you relate to the trade unions, to the question of elections? What sort of activity should be organised? And so on. One thing that I am absolutely convinced about is that a new socialist party cannot emerge fully formed and fully armed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Zeus, of course, got a terrible headache, his forehead split open and out sprung Athena. That is not how a new party will emerge.

We have the headache, if you like, of how we construct this new party, and it may be that at the end of the Left Unity process we do not end up where most of us in this room would want to be. But what we can be absolutely certain of is that if those 8,000 people - and I think there are many more - have for one reason or another turned their back on the Labour Party, have not looked to the far left, have not looked to the Greens, then something is missing that we Marxists can help to deliver, bringing clarity of thought and ideas, ideas on the construction of a programme. I am not going to say what that programme should or should not contain - that is a question of debate.

There will be a process of debate and discussion over whether there should be a new party, and if so what sort of new party it should be. I will be arguing that this new party cannot just be a mildly more leftwing version of the politics that the 8,000 people rejected and I will be putting forward four basic proposals.

1. It should fundamentally be a party that proclaims the need to supersede capitalism with socialism. It should proclaim openly on its banner that it is a socialist organisation.

2. It should be an organisation that fights tooth and nail to defend working class living standards - in the workplace, at home, in all aspects of working class life. All the existing parties accept the logic of the market, of the profit system. By contrast we will have to argue that the root problem we are facing is the profit system, which needs to be replaced by socialism, through active class struggle.

3. We should fight wherever possible not only to defend, but to extend, working class rights, working class living standards and working class conditions. Any improvement under this system can only be obtained through struggle. It is never going to be conceded. Whereas democratic rights are being rolled back, we have to fight to extend them. If you want proportional representation, if you want to repeal the anti-union laws and restore the right to protest, you have to struggle for it.

4. The new party should be democratic. That for me means an individual-membership organisation, with everyone having equal rights and obligations. On disagreement and dissent, I hope the far-left approach is not carried over - whereby closed groups debate policy in secret, resulting in new lines appearing as if from nowhere; even if you are a participant in the debate, you are not allowed to say which side you are on. I do not think that in the tradition we look to this was ever how things worked in the past, but, even if it was, the conditions do not exist to justify such undemocratic practices today. The notion that somehow you can hide your differences is ridiculous. Through Facebook, the social media and so on, these are instantaneously spread around the world. This is a good thing! Thought progresses through the clash of ideas and, so long as they fit within the general line of march of the organisation, differences and dissent are no problem.

Party and strategy

The far left has become too used to working in isolation - maybe coming together reluctantly at a meeting someone has called and then handing out their separate leaflets. It reminds me of the finches observed by Darwin on the Galapagos islands - they underwent different mutations as a result of their separation on different islands, but they all remained finches. Whilst the idiosyncrasies of the far left may drive us to distraction, a period of working together in the same organisation would remove most of those idiosyncrasies and the rough edges would be smoothed over. Most of the differences that typically lead to splits are not matters of principle. Often they are purely tactical or analytical.

For me a party is needed in order to change society. How does the working class become the ruling class? I think all Marxists would agree that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself - though many only pay lip service to this. It will not be an elite, a bureaucracy or a parliamentary majority acting on its own. It will be the working class through its own activity. I do not know the exact proportion made up by the working class in Britain today, but it must be 70% or 80% of the population. There is also a smaller, petty bourgeois class that looks both ways, and then a tiny ruling class at the top. So for socialism to come about requires a democratic transformation of society - the act of the majority.

So how does that majority act to become the ruling class? It has the numbers, so technically it could happen tomorrow. But the working class must become conscious that a fundamental breach with capitalism is necessary. To achieve that, to go from where we are with a myriad of competing sects and atomised individuals with no party, to a mass movement mobilising 30-40 million people is a monumental task. So it is a question of organising those people who agree now to become agitators for our ideas and persuade other people, and of those people then constituting a party.

The party exists to change society and the programme of the party outlines the strategy we need to carry through when we gain power. The working class, we need to explain, must become the power in society and implement its programme to begin to change society - beginnings which will lay the basis for a completely different form of society, without exploitation and classes.

I will finish on this point - why is it that the NHS is held by most people in such reverence and affection? I think it is because it encapsulates in a certain way the embryo of the future society, of what it could be. Everyone pays in according to what they earn and then they take out what they need. You may have been on benefits and have paid very little in terms of national insurance, but if you have cancer you get treatment. The NHS exists in the here and now, and people understand that the needs of society are much more important than the profits of the few. The NHS presages, if you like, that society that we define with the well known aphorism: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs”.