Left Unity: Broad party illusions

Ben Lewis offers some critical thoughts on a recent International Socialist Network article

Having recently decamped from the Socialist Workers Party, the International Socialist Network splinter, which is commonly associated with China Miéville and Richard Seymour, is trying to navigate its way through the choppy waters of the British far left. Usefully, the group publishes brief reports of its meetings.

The ISN is now involved in the Left Unity project, with ISN member Tom Walker elected to its national coordinating group. It has become apparent from the minutes that, having rejected offers for discussions with the CPGB and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the ISN has “agreed in principle” that it “should look to forming a joint organisation in the future” with the liquidationist Anti-Capitalist Initiative and the soft-left Socialist Resistance. No “firm plans were made regarding either a timetable, or the nuts and bolts of a merger”, however. Instead, “a number of joint initiatives were proposed, with an eye to having as many members as possible in all areas united in joint activity.”1

Yet what, other than this much-vaunted “joint activity”, is going to be the actual political basis of such unity, and how will it impact upon LU? After all, despite LU’s “anti-sectarian sectarian” take on cooperating with left groups, all three organisations are involved, Socialist Resistance particularly so. In this sense, a recent ISN article on left unity, written by comrades Paris Thompson and Tim Nelson, should be of interest to the movement as a whole.2 It shows that, since they have left the SWP, the two comrades have been doing some thinking about the left, regroupment and unity.

Unsurprisingly, one aspect of this rethink concerns the thorny question of the revolutionary party. The comrades partly trace the ingrained sectarianism and stagnation of today’s groups to objective factors, such as the low level of class struggle and the defeats of our movement over the last few decades. Yet they also highlight subjective shortcomings, such as the “underlying problem” of the “traditional Trotskyist model of organisation as a whole”.

Partisans of the Weekly Worker will recognise and probably nod along with some of the points the comrades make about the “sectarianism, dogmatism and substitutionism” bound up with this model, and it is good to see that at least some of the arguments advanced by this paper are beginning to have an impact.

Yet there are also signs (more evident in some of the other ISN postings and comments) of the baby being thrown out with the SWP bathwater, such as the comrades’ championing of an “inclusive, pluralistic party of the left” (rather than one based on commitment and dedication to a particular set of programmatic principles), a party “which is democratic and built from the bottom up” (rather than democratically built top-down as a ‘superstructure’ on the ‘base’ of a revolutionary programme).

The comrades rightly criticise those who make noises about the need for a mass socialist party, yet see “their own particular sect, which is the only true manifestation of the socialist tradition, as the mass socialist party in embryo”. However, it is slightly disconcerting that the comrades chide the left for producing “abstract propaganda” (as if the comrades’ article itself is not “abstract propaganda” from the point of view of 99% of the population) and then refer to the “artificial divisions” and “petty arguments” on the left. After all, many arguments between left groups are not “petty” or “artificial”, but reflect radically different conceptions of the class, democracy, socialism, etc. Overcoming these differences, or at least separating the wheat from the chaff, actually means … having a serious argument and dialogue, instead of kidding ourselves that we are ‘speaking to the masses’ in (often dull) publications like Socialist Worker or The Socialist.

It shows how far the comrades have come from the ‘We’re the only game in town’ perspectives of the SWP when they stress that “it’s an objective necessity to realign the left” and, accordingly, that LU “should be treated with the seriousness it deserves”.


Yet the article’s title, ‘Left Unity and the need for a broad party’, is a big disappointment. Rather confusingly, it seems to flit back and forth between making the case for “revolutionary groups” to use LU as a site of struggle for the kind of revolutionary party we need, and arguing that a “broad party of the left”, including reformists, would be a good thing in and of itself, with LU having “the potential to play the role of a broad, class-struggle party.”

Indeed, while it is welcome that the comrades argue that people need to be won “to a revolutionary programme through argument”, they seem to imply that a “broad party” could provide a “vehicle” for this. Indeed, at one point the authors seem to conflate a “broad party of the left” with one that “brings about the socialist transformation of society” (presumably with syndicalists, reformists and Labourites in its “broad” ranks). For the most part, then, the article is a defence of a broad-left, Syriza-esque realignment. “Of course”, the comrades point out, there will be “divisions between those who wish to pursue a reformist agenda and those who are revolutionaries”. (As though that would be a minor problem in bringing about the “socialist transformation of society”).

Fundamentally, this evident tension between the two outlooks - a ‘broad left’ unity project and revolutionary realignment - seems to reflect a confusion about LU itself and the aims of its main motivating forces. Undeniably, for groups like Socialist Resistance, the objective is to establish a ‘left of Labour’ halfway-house party along the lines of Die Linke or Syriza that, to use an old Fourth International phrase, is not “programmatically delimited between reform and revolution”.

But can there be a British Syriza or Die Linke? Interestingly, the ISN comrades seem to allude to the ‘lack of space’ for such a project, asserting that the Labour Party continues to be a “capitalist workers’ party”: that is, “It continues to have the affiliation, and active participation, of much of the trade union movement. Its programme, and leadership, is capitalist.” “Marxists”, they add, therefore argue that the Labour Party is a “typical social democratic organisation”.

So why, then, is there a need for another social democratic party - this one attempting to base itself on the “spirit of ’45”? What is the point in such “realignment”? Surely one of the most decisive reasons behind the failure of “previous attempts” at left unity, such as the Socialist Alliance, etc, must be attributed to the ‘revolutionary Marxist’ groups, which were content to advance Labourite politics in such formations.

The comrades do not deal with these questions in any detail. Instead, they contend that such projects failed because they were dominated “by one particular organisation”, or because they were “alliances of already existing far-left groups” that “tended, therefore, to paper over the problems that exist on the left, rather than solve them”.

Yet “papering over” problems on the left - or, rather, seeking to avoid left groups like the plague - is precisely what the main string-pullers such as Andrew Burgin, Kate Hudson and SR appear to be doing. They think that the existing left can be circumvented and that masses of disillusioned Labourites and Labour voters can be immediately won over, as disillusioned Labourites. It is as if they are unwilling, or unable, to learn anything from the disasters of the Socialist Labour Party, SA, Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, etc. You can’t fight Labourism with Labourism, comrades!

Phantom right wing

So while communists could broadly agree with comrades Thompson and Nelson’s assertion that “the role of revolutionary socialists is to articulate a clear strategy within [LU] that shows the necessity of taking it in a radical direction and confronting capital, as opposed to tailing Labour and the trade union bureaucracy”, we cannot get around the fact that it is precisely some of these self-professed “revolutionary socialists”, (such as SR, with whom the ISN is in talks about “revolutionary unity”, remember) that are, to use Thompson’s and Nelson’s phrase, fudging “the distinction between reform and revolution, almost pretending to be reformists”.

For comrade Terry Conway of SR, however, the LU project is presumably part of some ‘transitional’ master plan, a kind of conveyor belt towards the ‘genuine Marxism’ of SR. After reassuring us that “members of far-left groups should be individually welcomed [into LU], but ways have to be found to protect the organisation and its members from the manipulation that has happened on previous occasions” (SR itself has never been manipulative, of course), she then gets rather upset about comrade Nick Wrack’s characterisation of Kate Hudson’s draft proposal for the LU platform as “a call for the formation of a social democratic party, which seeks to reform capitalism”. According to comrade Conway, Nick “ignores the fact that Hudson’s draft talks about ‘redistributing wealth to the working class’ and ‘transforming our economy in the interests of the majority’”.3

Yes, comrade, as if one of the things social democracy, either historically or today, cannot countenance are vague, motherhood and apple pie platitudes that do not commit it to anything concrete! Can you really see Ed Miliband disagreeing with statements like “transforming our economy in the interests of the majority”? Even David Cameron could happily spout such nonsense.

In this sense, comrades Thompson and Nelson are totally off the mark to argue that “revolutionaries should expect to be in a minority for the foreseeable future - as is the case in the most advanced sections of the working class in all periods except objectively revolutionary situations.”

Let us be clear: within LU, as with previous projects, the ‘revolutionary’ left waters down the Marxist politics it purportedly upholds in order to accommodate a phantom right wing. This right wing then serves as the excuse to limit the new formation’s world view to politics that the left knows, or should know, to be wholly inadequate. The implication is that revolutionary Marxism ‘scares people off’, whereas bullshitting them, apparently, does not.

Let us quote the words of comrade Conway, echoing those of John Rees in Respect: “I think that for Left Unity to blossom into its full potential it has to include people who may not agree with Ken [Loach] or me, or those who may not have thought through their approach to these questions. People have signed up who have not had any involvement in organised politics before, while others, with decades of Labour Party membership, have joined Left Unity because we are standing firm against austerity.” We must simply hold a mirror up to such people. Comrade Conway continues: “I want to be in a political organisation with them, as well as with people who became politically active through Occupy, … with those whose primary identification is as environmentalists, as feminists, as campaigners for civil liberties, as well as those who have a more far-left analysis and practice” (emphasis added).

Labour(ism) of Sisyphus

In his report of the LU national meeting, comrade Nick Wrack draws an analogy between the Greek king, Sisyphus, and the far left’s repeated attempts to create a new party: “Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a huge boulder up a hill every day, only for it to roll back down when he neared the top, forcing him to begin again each sunrise. Our task is to push the boulder over the top; to build a party that is an integral part of the working class and which aims to assist the working class to become the ruling class.”4

If we are serious, then our politics must begin with what we are fighting for : the struggle for working class rule and an end to capitalism. We cannot peddle any kind of nonsense in the hope that the revolution will one day appear to save us all. Parties are formed by the conscious intervention of historical agents around particular ideas and programmes. As such, the “question of revolution or reform” today is not an “abstract debate”, but something real. Labourism and social democracy are outlooks alien to the working class movement: they do not serve as signposts on the way to revolutionary politics, but lead to a completely different place altogether.

Our starting point is straightforward: the ideas, organisation and consciousness that are needed in order for our class to organise into a party that can defeat the system. It seems paradoxical, but lasting and serious unity can only come about through clarity, programme, theory, honest debate and protracted struggle. This is the enduring lesson of all partyist initiatives worth mentioning in our history: the small left grouplets that formed the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the groups that came together to establish German Social Democracy, and the organisations that founded our very own Communist Party in 1920. In different ways and at different times, such unifications provided these forces with the critical mass necessary to have a real impact on the class, as opposed to the posturing so widespread on today’s left. Such processes were inexorably bound up with all kinds of controveries over the concrete and scientific meaning of particular terms, concepts and categories (too often dismissed as “abstract language” today).

For Marxists, such things are not “petty” or “abstract” “squabbles”, but absolutely integral to moving out of the impasse we currently find ourselves in. As usual, we in the CPGB will make every effort to raise the level of the debates on the party we need: particularly now, this means fighting ‘broad party’ illusions.



1. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/is-network/minutes/114-2013-05-13-steering-cttee-minutes.

2. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/left-unity/116-tim-nelson-and-paris-thompson-left-unity-and-the-need-for-a-broad-party.

3. T Conway, ‘Thoughts from the first national meeting of Left Unity’: http://socialistresistance.org/5214/thoughts-from-the-first-national-meeting-of-left-unity.

4. N Wrack, ‘Socialism - or something less? Let the debate begin’: www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=2148.