To get out of the gutter, begin by looking up at the stars

Should the left aim for a non-socialist stage of capitalism? A stage acceptable to Stalinites, trade union bureaucrats and left reformists? Ben Lewis responds to Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network

I am pleased that Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network responded1 to my critique2 of his article ‘Left Unity and the need for a mass party’ (jointly written with Paris Thompson).3 It is also encouraging that the comrade was prepared to submit it to the Weekly Worker. If he had still been a member of the Socialist Workers Party, then that would almost certainly have been out of the question.

Not that the ISN has broken with the SWP’s method. Instead of engaging in the serious and absolutely vital task of debating the key strategic questions, the majority of its leadership seems determined to repeat all the mistakes of its parent body. Eg, in the name of engaging in day-to-day struggles and helping to build the Left Unity project into a ‘broad party’, the ISN rejected the offer of joint talks with the CPGB. Meanwhile the ISN appears to be determined to cement ‘revolutionary’ unity with Socialist Resistance and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, mainly because they too are committed to a ‘broad party’. A ‘broad party’ designed to accommodate everyone from Stalinites, Trotskyites and left reformists to anarchists, feminists, eco-activists and anti-austerity protestors. In other words, a ‘broad party’ in which ‘revolutionaries’ are expected to drop or suspend their principles in the name of unity with forces whose politics are, in fact, incompatible.

Anyway, I must say that comrade Nelson’s solo effort is a disappointment. Nevertheless, being much shorter than the original article published on the ISN internet site, it rather succinctly summarises many of the dead-end arguments which currently pass as common sense on the left, conjuring up a picture of ‘Leninism’ that, ironically, continues the fallacies of Tony Cliff, Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos, but merely places a minus where they place a plus. The ‘Leninist’ caricature remains.

What results is a distinct lack of clarity about how to proceed, beyond the ISN intervening in the Left Unity initiative in order to argue for politics based on day-to-day struggles of the working class, couched in the language of “socialism from below”.

To highlight what I think are incorrect politics is not to dismiss the comrade or the ISN more generally: I appreciate that he and his comrades will take some time to find their feet politically, especially given that they have only just been freed from the stifling and proscriptive regime of the SWP, a regime that is absolutely antithetical to the kind of strategic thinking our movement requires. My criticisms, therefore, are offered in a spirit of a comradely exchange: pointing out where I think Nelson is going wrong and why such strategic errors could lead him and the ISN towards yet another round of disillusionment and demoralisation.


Permanent minority?

I would like to assure comrade Nelson that I have absolutely no intention of setting up “straw men” or deliberately misrepresenting his views. Indeed, one reason why exchanges such as this are important is precisely to establish where we are talking past each other, so as to focus on our actual differences. The starting point for my article was to critique the idea of a broad, ‘halfway house’ party project, such as the one envisioned by the main driving forces behind LU, including SR and the ACI. Obviously both comrade Nelson and comrade Thompson agree with the CPGB that the Labour Party remains a “capitalist workers’ party”. Therefore I argued that it is nonsense on stilts to think that we on the left can replace the existing Labour Party with a Labour Party mark two. Not only is such a perspective pointless: it is illusory.

Before we move on to our substantive differences, it is worth stressing one or two things: we in the CPGB strive to work alongside all others seeking to defend and advance the interests of the working class. We also strive to engage with all serious left unity initiatives, even when we think the motivating politics are highly questionable. After all, CPGB comrades were involved in the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and Respect. None of these were parties in the sense of organising a meaningful part of the working class - but they were certainly sites of intervention where communists could fight for the right politics and programme.

Anyway, the main issue between us is this: is it incumbent upon Marxists themselves to establish such formations? Do such organisations as the SLP, SA, Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and LU represent the highest form of mass politics in present-day capitalist conditions? Will there be a Respect, Tusc or LU stage, a Respect, Tusc or LU government, before socialism and the rule of the working class? In other words is there - as the title of comrade Nelson’s and Thompson’s original piece explicitly states - the need for a broad party as part of revolutionary strategy? We in the CPGB answer all these questions in the negative.

Comrade Nelson asserts that his conception of the broad party is different from some version of warmed-over social democracy (and in some ways his view does seem to differ slightly from the implied orientation of SR, ACI and co), but he then proceeds to define such a formation as including “in its ranks all those who wish to bring about the socialist transformation of society”, even though “some may believe this could be brought about through reformist means”. He contends that the establishment of such a party and fighting for revolutionary unity are not “mutually exclusive” - they are two “separate, but linked” tasks for revolutionaries today.

In light of the abject failure of the British left’s ‘broad party’ initiatives over the past couple of decades, I am slightly bewildered that this argument still has any purchase at all. Even according to their own extraordinarily limited aims these ‘broad parties’ have achieved nothing but further demoralisation and sub-political splits. Failure after failure should teach us something. Not surprisingly then, the entire notion of revolutionaries setting up ‘halfway houses’ runs counter to the Marxist method in three fundamental ways.

Firstly, it implies (in contrast to Nelson’s correct insistence that the liberation of the working class must be of its own making) that ‘ordinary people’ are incapable of being directly won over to the inspiring world outlook of Marxism. They must spend some time in a kind of non-Marxist purgatory, because it is simply unthinkable that they can be convinced right now of the necessity of combining the struggle for reforms with the struggle for the masses to take over the running of all aspects of society for themselves.

In a second, and related, sense, the broad-party approach is indicative of an outlook that is not actually aiming to become a genuinely mass force seeking to influence, inspire and empower the millions upon millions of conscious, dedicated fighters needed to break through the fetters of the capitalist system. Instead, it relies on small forces levering larger ones: ie, frontism, manipulation and a certain cynicism. In organising in the name of revolutionary expediency around politics we actually know to be wrong, the left is falling back on pre-Marxist/anti-Marxist conceptions of revolution, which emphasise the role of the all-seeing elite, not the self-emancipation of the majority.

Thirdly, if we think that Marxism is scientific socialism that must be studied, understood and developed, then how on earth can it further our side to initially peddle illusions in views that are alien and fundamentally hostile to Marxism’s basic propositions on the nature of capitalism, imperialist war, the police and the army, the communist future? Would it perhaps be better to teach children the theory of evolution by first schooling them in the Lamarckian theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics as a necessary ‘first step’ in the process of arriving at Darwinism, natural selection and so forth?

Essentially, what our ‘broad partyist Marxists’ are doing is adapting to the left’s current marginality and the overwhelming dominance of bourgeois ideology. Rather than locating that weakness in the series of strategic defeats we have suffered and doing the hard thinking needed to arrive at the correct orientation, they take for granted the notion that Marxists will always be in a minority, organised in small groups until the day of revolution dawns. Moreover - as leading SWP oppositionist Ian Birchall did in a recent article - many comrades project this picture back onto history, arguing that the “Bolsheviks were always a minority until a revolutionary situation arose”.4 Actually this is not true. Yes, the Bolsheviks did gain a very narrow majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets in 1917. Their ‘majority’ came from their alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. Certainly when it came the elections to the Constituent Assembly the communists won only around 30% of the votes. However, we should not forget that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks both assumed mass proportions with the 1905 revolution and these roots in the working class were maintained historically. Eg, the Bolsheviks won the entire workers’ curia in the 1912 duma elections.

Marxists in Russia were far from unique. Across Europe, in the late 19th century, mass Marxist parties modelled on the million-strong Social Democratic Party in Germany were formed. And, of course, with the formation of the Communist International in 1919, mass parties grew in places such China, India, Indonesia and Iran.


First International

Yet how has it come to pass that so many of today’s Marxists, who in their meetings and events will no doubt castigate the betrayals of reformism, the treachery of opportunism, etc, actually end up (consciously, or most probably unconsciously) deploying the political outlook of Eduard Bernstein (and much worse) as an integral aspect of what passes for their strategy?

To the extent that the ‘broad front’ approach is justified historically, the example of the International Working Men’s Association (First International) will be invoked. Established in 1864, it consisted of an array of different working class trends and outlooks, such as British trade unionists, Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Owenites, supporters of Marx and Engels, and many more.

This is often seen as a model for the kind of “class struggle” organisation that comrade Nelson would like LU to become: after all, it sought to “unite all those who wish to confront the capitalist system”, with Marx and Engels gradually winning support. Indeed, on the face of it, the supporters of Marx were able to gain influence within the International, as part of their struggle against other tendencies and outlooks.

Marx was certainly under no illusions as to the nature of the forces he was collaborating with. In a letter to Engels’ cousin, Karl Siebel, he argued that the Lassallean General German Workers’ Association should affiliate to the International, but with this caveat: “Later on this organisation must be completely destroyed, because the foundations on which it rests are false.”5

There are, however, two main problems with the First International analogy. Not only did it bust apart when put to the test of the Paris Commune: it was not actually initiated by Marx and Engels as some kind of sea in which they could swim. It actually came about due to the efforts of an international working class movement that was still in its infancy but was being spurred on in particular by the revolutionary events in Poland and the United States. There had been several other vague unity initiatives. Yet, as historian August Nimtz notes, “Marx had turned down apparently similar invitations” before 1864. What made this attempt at unity different, and what made it worth entering and fighting within despite the awful politics of many who were involved, was that it represented real working class forces internationally. As Marx wrote to Engels, “I knew on this occasion ‘people who really count’ were appearing, both from London and from Paris.”6

Moreover, if we take 1864 as some kind of starting point for revolutionary organisation today, then we are ignoring some of the key organisational and political lessons that Marx and Engels had drawn from the failure of the International.

At the International’s final congress (the only one he actually attended) in the Hague in 1872, Marx was adamant that, in order to achieve its goals, the workers needed to organise in a political party of the class, based on a clear and principled programme. This Marxist programme was not, as he constantly stressed, to be fought for as some kind of point d’honneur to artificially separate the party from the working class movement, but because its basic propositions and solutions were true. As the resolution passed at the Hague congress underlined, “... the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes”. Constituting the working class into a political party, it continues, “is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end - the abolition of classes”. Instead of fudging, remaining silent on or downplaying tasks, the message was clear: “To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.”7

Those on today’s left who sneer at the idea of standing on a “full Marxist programme”, should take note. The conclusions drawn in these resolutions informed the establishment of the parties that later came together in what we now know as the Second International: a real victory, as Engels never ceased to point out. Contrary to the claims of some ‘broad partyists’ today,8 the programme of the Parti Ouvrier in France (in part written by Marx himself), the Erfurt programme of German Social Democracy, the Hainfeld programme of Austrian Social Democracy and - perhaps most importantly for our discussion with comrade Nelson, the minimum-maximum programme advocated by Lenin - were not ‘broad’, but actually drew sharp lines of demarcation against anarchists, reformists and labour bureaucrats who could not countenance talk of the working class overthrowing the capitalist state and taking political power.

Therein lay the strength of these parties: their clear understanding of how to “merge socialism with the workers’ movement” and map out the historic mission of the working class. From cooperatives and clubs through to newspapers and demonstrations, these parties touched the lives of millions. Yet in terms of their theory, their principles and their programmes, they were all built ‘top down’. That is from the theory, principles and programme of Marxism.


Nelson’s trap

For comrade Nelson, however, such an approach - surely the ‘A’ and the ‘B’ of the ABCs of Marxism - is indicative of an elitist disdain for the working class masses. He is aghast: “Lewis seems to fall into the classic ‘Leninist’ trap of believing that revolutionary consciousness can be brought to the masses from the outside. A common theme of dogmatic Leninism is the idea that workers on their own cannot develop revolutionary ideas, and it is the role of Marxist intellectuals to enlighten them.”

Perhaps this is indicative of comrade Nelson reacting, in a rather knee-jerk fashion, to his alienating experience of ‘Leninism’ in the SWP, whereby the all-powerful and all-knowing central committee dishes out the orders to the minions. Yet comrade Nelson and his ISN comrades must be careful not to draw simplistic conclusions from their SWP days. The entire ‘IS tradition’ must be scrutinised. As I warned in my previous article, the baby must not be thrown out with the SWP bathwater in a rejection of leadership and leaders tout court.9

As things currently stand, comrade Nelson could not be more wrong when it comes to Lenin and Leninism. He seems to be aiming his fire at the ‘infamous’ passage contained in Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet, What is to be done? Lenin, in order to prove that what he was arguing for was utterly unoriginal, bog-standard Marxism, approvingly quoted Karl Kautsky: “Socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without [von Aussen Hineingetragenes] and not something that arose within it spontaneously [urwüchsig]. Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme quite rightly stated that the task of social democracy is to imbue [literally, to saturate] the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task” (the comments in parentheses are those of Lenin).

Lenin is making the (surely pretty obvious) point that a rounded, genuinely Marxist consciousness amongst a working class that has transcended its existence as a mere slave class and attained a genuinely world-historic and scientific outlook (embodied in works like Capital, Anti-Dühring, etc) does not result from the economic struggle: ie, the constant ‘guerrilla warfare’ over things like hours, wages and conditions.

Urwüchsig is the key term here, which is why Lenin retains its use in brackets. Often translated as ‘elemental’ or ‘primitive’, it underlines how Kautsky is referring to the working class movement in its most elemental form: ie, the immediate conflict between the worker and the boss, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Marxism is not needed to invent such a thing: it is a constantly recurring feature of capitalist society. Yet the role of Marxism is to stress the need for a political organisation adopting a revolutionary stance in respect to all classes in society as a whole. Simple as that.

None of this is to say that economic struggles are irrelevant to revolutionary strategy, but merely that the role of Marxists is not to limit agitation and activity to such bread and butter issues, but to constantly champion, and seek to imbue the masses with, the kind of rounded vision that addresses how we are ruled and oppressed, how this oppression can also affect other classes, how this can be overcome, etc. This is why we in the CPGB place so much emphasis on clarity and demarcation when it comes to strategy and programme (and why we take such issue with the notion of halfway houses with their mystifying, fudging and confusing).

Lenin, all the while following Marx, Engels and Kautsky, was seeking to combat the economistic idea that there is something contained within the economic struggle itself that, as this struggle heightens, will result in socialist consciousness. Interestingly in this regard, last year ISN comrade Richard Seymour offered a similar economistic explanation for why we on the far left appear to have embraced left reformism: “In practice,” he said, “we are all pursuing ‘left reformist’ agendas, in the hope that the ensuing class struggles and crises will provide the means (popular self-organisation, workers’ rebellion) to turn them into tools for transition.”10 The movement is everything, the final goal is ...



To imply, as comrade Nelson does, that Lenin was out to create a party of intellectuals, whose elitist outlook necessarily entailed a ‘distrust of the workers’ and their energy, creativity and ability to develop ideas, is an enormous disservice to Bolshevism and some our movement’s best traditions.

I would encourage comrade Nelson to take another look at What is to be done? and to also find the time to read Lars T Lih’s Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context. One of the great merits of this study is that it proves how - in yet another of the ironic twists of our history - at the 1902 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party it was actually the Menshevik minority that was characterised by an elitist aloofness to the worker activists in the movement. The Mensheviks also thought that they were above the democracy and discipline of the party, mocking the Bolshevik majority faction for its lack of ‘intellectuals’.

Given these basic misrepresentations of ‘Leninism’, it is hardly a surprise that comrade Nelson arrives at the following conclusion, as if he were polemicising with Workers Power or the International Bolshevik Tendency: “If you believe that revolutionary consciousness is brought about from ‘the top down’, then the task is to build an ideologically pure organisation, which can at its leisure develop a word-perfect revolutionary programme.”11

No, comrade, arguing that the Marxist programme is developed ‘top down’, as the result of painstaking theoretical work and discussion, is not the same as arguing for a sect. After all, while Marx, Engels, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were all of non-proletarian origins and did not spend a day of their lives working as a factory hand, can we think of more dedicated and selfless working class fighters than these?

We in the CPGB are clear: the current crisis of the far left can to no small extent be traced back to a crisis of, and an indifference towards, programme. This is particularly true of the ‘IS tradition’, which has generally viewed a revolutionary programme as a hindrance, not the springboard from which to unite and tool up the workers’ movement. In fact, it is the IS tradition that has displayed all the characteristics of an “ideologically pure” group, based as it is upon agreement with particular shibboleths and historical interpretations - such as the permanent arms economy or state capitalism - and the gagging of even the most minor dissenting views within that group.

We, in contrast, state that the existing far left can, and must, unite on the basis of a political programme that can map out the transition from capitalism to the rule of the working class (the minimum programme) and the transition to communism and generalised human freedom (the maximum programme). We are clear that our Draft programme, as the title implies, is not the last word on this question, but something that we contribute to and fight for in that struggle. Comrade Nelson’s thoughts on it would be most welcome.

We are certainly not out for ideological purity. We merely ask that all comrades accept such a programme as the basis for action. Moreover, we stress that comrades have the right and the duty to publicly raise their criticisms and differences within the framework of that programme. If we are serious about building organisations that can “relate to the class” in any meaningful way, then this is the kind of culture we need to fight for and win across the whole movement - not frontism, short-termism and lowest-common-denominator ‘broad parties’.

Comrade Nelson takes issue with me for discussing the kind of party that could bring about the socialist transformation of society. Dismissing this as “elitist nonsense” (presumably along the same lines as his dismissal of his own caricature of the supposed aloof intellectual, Lenin), he argues: “No party, sect or union is capable of bringing about the socialist transformation of society. In this, the International Socialists stand firmly in the Marxist tradition of the self-emancipation of the working class. It is the workers themselves who are the vehicle for the socialist transformation of society.”

But a class with what ideas, what programme, what organisations? A class in itself is not the same thing as a class for itself. We agree that no “sect or union” can bring about socialism. But, to paraphrase Marx, is the class able to act as a class without a revolutionary party? Victorious revolution, after all, not only presupposes that our rulers cannot continue to rule, but that there exists a certain maturity of will, firmness of organisation, depth of consciousness and resolute unity of our class. If this is not the case, then why would Marxists need to do anything at all beyond promoting routine economic struggle?

Moreover, while the best of intentions doubtless lie behind comrade Nelson’s emphasis on building “bottom up”, such methods are actually disingenuous. After all, precisely because of the “contradictory” nature of working class consciousness that he notes, as well as the fact that human beings possess different talents, skills, interests and so on, there are always going to be those who lead in politics: even (and perhaps especially!) in groups that claim to have eschewed leadership and leaders. In this sense, for us in the CPGB, ‘top down’ does not translate into a disdain for democracy: leadership in a revolutionary party, as well as across the workers’ movement as a whole, has to be based on the most thoroughgoing democracy and accountability.

Comrade Nelson concludes: “The task is to build a mass, democratic, socialist organisation”. I agree. But hang on a minute ... why does this task also entail setting up a party that includes Stalinists, trade union bureaucrats, left reformists, anarchists, petty bourgeois ecologists, etc? Why are there two tasks, rather than one: establishing the unity of Marxists as Marxists and winning militant workers to what results?

After all, the main motivating forces behind LU actually self-identify as Marxists. It is their sectism, economism and political conservatism which hold them back from fighting for a revolutionary alternative. At a dangerous historical juncture of capitalist crisis and turmoil, where the need for a higher form of society (as opposed to a bandaged and plastered version of the existing one) is so painfully obvious, our ‘broad party’ comrades are allowing the right - ie, the trade union bureaucracy and the liberal bourgeoisie - to set their agenda, all in the name of ‘common sense’ and/or ‘making a difference’. Yet here is the rub: precisely because the forces of reformism are either loyal to or cannot see beyond the existing capitalist state, they are rather poor fighters for reform and change. Revolutionary principles, tactics and methods of struggle are the surest way of actually winning reforms. We must look to the potential of our own organisational power, not to the generosity of those above.

So as to unleash this potential, we on the far left must urgently begin to organise around what we are actually for, especially given that there are various backward-looking, reformist and even reactionary outlooks amongst many “who want to confront the capitalist system”, as comrade Nelson puts it. We need to loudly and unashamedly proclaim that the only type of organisation worth its salt, the only organisation that can, with time, become fully mass, is one that openly champions the supersession of capitalism and the achievement of working class power. Would comrade Nelson vote for such politics in LU, or, like his allies in the ACI and SR, would he fudge them in the name of ‘breadth’ and inclusivity?

To quote Oscar Wilde, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.



1. T Nelson, ‘Illusion is the first of all pleasuresWeekly Worker May 30.

2. B Lewis, ‘Broad party illusionsWeekly Worker May 23.

3. T Nelson and P Thompson, ‘Left Unity and the need for a broad party’: 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.

4. I Birchall, ‘What does it mean to be a Leninist?Socialist Review June 2013.

5. Quoted in R Morgan The German Social Democrats and the First International 1864-72 Cambridge 2008, p95.

6. A Nimtz Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough New York 2000, p179.

7. ‘Resolution on the establishment of working class parties’: www.marxists.org/history/international/iwma/documents/1872/hague-conference/parties.htm.

8. C Strafford, ‘The road to a united left’: http://anticapitalists.org/2013/02/08/the-road-to-a-united-left.

9. Unfortunately, the leaflet distributed by ISN comrades at the May 31-June 1 Dangerous Ideas event staged by Counterfire seems to suggest that some are veering in this direction. See http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/downloads/126-socialism-from-below-a-real-dangerous-idea?1=1.

10. R Seymour, ‘A comment on Greece and SyrizaInternational Socialism No136, October 2012.

11. Workers Power nicely sums up this version of ‘Leninism’. In one statement, the comrades write, without any sense of irony or humility: “We do not present our programme as an ultimatum, in a ‘take it or leave it’, ‘all or nothing’ way. We are clear, however, that without it the new organisation would not be a fully revolutionary organisation; it would be some sort of intermediate centrist organisation.” This is all the more absurd, as WP agrees that it is the duty of Marxists to establish centrist parties!