Broad parties: Theories of deception
The extent to which we practise transparency and democracy determines whether we can be taken seriously, argues Mike Macnair
The Left Unity project is now at least part-way to being up and running: local groups are already set up in several places and there have now been two national delegate meetings. It has a chance of making a positive difference to the situation of the left.
It has this chance firstly because the project aims for a new membership party of the left, not a federal bloc of the existing left groups. Secondly, because it stands, if so far vaguely, for a politics of hope, grassroots organising and offering an image of radical change, symbolised (if very imperfectly) by Ken Loach’s film Spirit of 45, which captures the widespread hopes of radical change in 1945 produced by inter-war labour organising and by the wartime experience itself. And, thirdly, because at least formally, and to some extent in practice, it aims for democratic organising and open debate.
I stress chance, however, for two reasons. The first is that the underlying dynamic of British politics at present seems to be towards the right. The UK Independence Party, not any of the left-of-Labour attempts, is picking up the protest vote, and both Cameron and co, and Miliband and Balls are dragged rightwards. The second is that there is a significant risk that LU will wind up producing something uninspiring: yet another iteration of the British far left’s attempts to get big by pretending to be the old Labour ‘broad left’ of the 1960s-70s, like the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance and Respect.
The report of the Doncaster LU national delegate meeting on June 15 (see p3) tells us that debates at that meeting were dominated by questions of organisation and procedure in the run-up to the intended founding conference in the autumn. These are real political issues. Running alongside this discussion, however, is another political debate: a highly opaque discussion on LU’s website about ‘language’. Should LU describe itself as ‘socialist’? Nick Wrack has argued that it should.1 Haringey LU supporter Joe Lo responded with a post entitled ‘Let’s explain what socialism is before we call ourselves socialist’, mainly focused on ‘out of date’ (far-left) language, which has attracted numerous comments.2
Since then, Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football has posted on the LU site, under the title ‘Mind your language’,3 a link with laudatory comment to the second part of the ‘Kilburn manifesto’. This is in course of production, and chapter-by-chapter publication, by the ‘old Marxism Today hands’ of the magazine Soundings.4 In fact, a number of the comments opposing ‘traditional left language’ are also accompanied by other symptoms of Marxism Today commitments.
Meanwhile, Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Mandelite Fourth International, has been heavily involved in LU from an early stage - though this group has semi-identified itself with ‘anti-group’ sentiment. SR has adopted at its 2013 conference the general line of a speech by Phil Hearse defending the group’s very long-standing twin-track approach of ‘Build a broad left party, fight for Marxist unity’.5 And on the Fourth International’s International Viewpoint webpage, SR’s Alan Davies finds himself in opposition to the FI bureau in a debate in that organisation’s International Committee, on the question: should the FI aim to promote broad anti-capitalist parties, as the bureau argues?6 Or is this a leftist mistake, as Davies argues?7 In the same debate the bureau’s approach is also criticised as rightist by Jeff Mackler for Socialist Action (US) and by Manos Skoufoglou from the Internationalist Communist Organisation of Greece (Spartakos or OKDE-S) and Gaël Quirante from the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste.8
This is, of course, the same debate which takes an Aesopian form in the discussion of ‘language’ on the LU website. Is it time to try to build a party which openly aims for radical change? Or should the aim be for broad unity around defence (or reconstruction) of the welfare state created after 1945 and the ‘Keynesian consensus’ against Tory (or neoliberal, whatever sort of capitalist-ideologue) attacks?
A related aspect of the ‘language’ debate, less touched on in the FI debate, is: should we be aiming to build a party of the working class - meaning people who live from wages and salaries (not including ‘executive compensation’, which is a distribution of profits disguised as salary) and related benefits, as opposed to small business-people? Or should the aim be something in the nature of a broad alliance against the current ideological order, as the Soundings writers propose (and as they proposed when they were Marxism Today writers ...)?
Language and history
I do not think anyone would disagree with the idea that leaflets for broad circulation, interviews on television and so on should be written or spoken in a language that the intended audience can understand. At one level it is hardly new. Go back to the 1970s, when the left was talking to lots of people: however much we in the 1970s far left wrote semi-academic theory and internal polemics in Trot-speak, only the Sparts and similar groups thought that leaflets and so on should be produced in the same style.
There is, however, a problem with limiting yourself wholly to ‘language people can understand’.
In Eric Flint’s 1632 series a small US mining town from the late 1990s is mysteriously translated to central Germany in the year 1631. In one of the more recent books in the series, 1636: the Kremlin games, co-written by Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett, one of the Americans, Bernie Zeppi, is hired to move to Russia. Here a Russian interlocutor is trying to deal with his explanation of plumbing: “What is a gravity feed?” Filip Pavlovich asked. “How can one make water grave and serious? Water does not flow because it is serious.” The problem in the scene is that Filip Pavlovich does not have the Newtonian concept of gravity to work with, and he needs to get it in order to understand Bernie’s explanation of his plans for plumbing.
You need to grasp certain explanatory concepts in order for certain choices to be possible to you. This is as true in politics and economics as it is in physics and engineering. Joe Lo’s and Mark Perryman’s proposed bans on certain sorts of language would deny LU and its members the possibility to think these concepts, like class and exploitation. It would still, of course, be possible to think in Marxism Today terms ...
The ‘forget the history’ idea is, if anything, more foolish. It is the political equivalent of, on an individual level, seeking to get Alzheimer’s, or volunteering for some sort of brain damage which wipes out both your existing memories and your ability to form new ones.
The idea that we can reach out to large numbers of ‘ordinary people’ if we forget the history and abandon words like ‘socialism’ is more immediately politically foolish: because it supposes that our political opponents, on the right, will consent to not talking about the history. The opposite is true. ‘Talking about Russia’ and Stalin is entrenched in the GCSE history curriculum and endlessly repeated by the rightwing press in response to even the slightest hint of leftwing discourse.
Nor is it to be imagined that this will wear out over time.9 The 14th century decay of the medieval Italian city-state republics into signorie (one-man dictatorships) and factional warfare, was still providing grist to the mill of pro-monarchist authors 250-300 years later in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and as late as Thomas Otway’s Venice preserv’d (1682). These plays taught audiences that There Is No Alternative to absolute monarchy. This story only lost its political edge when the Dutch republic, after 1609, and England, after 1688, showed a better political alternative.10 The story of Stalinism will, similarly, be endlessly repeated and will not lose its political edge until we are able to show that we can propose something better in practice.
‘Forgetting 20th century history’ is, of course, beneficial to advocates of warmed-over versions of the line of Marxism Today. Stuart Hall, Michael Rustin and Doreen Massey may today offer a ‘new road for the left’ in ‘new conditions’, without any auto-critique of their own policy in the 1970s-90s. But those of us who still have memories or access to recent history know what the real political outcome of that policy was … Blairism. The real inheritors were not those who have clung to a sentimental leftism, but Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, John Reid ... The narrative is made clearly in John Carr’s 2011 series on Marxism Today’s role in the development of Blairism at ProgressOnline.11 In the light of this outcome, today’s left has good reasons to say to the ex-Marxism Today crowd, “A period of silence on your part would be welcome” (certainly better reasons than Attlee’s for his original put-down to Laski).
To turn from these arguments to the debate among the Mandelites is almost (but not quite) a relief. This debate addresses real developments, mainly in European countries, and real political choices. ‘Not quite’ a relief for two reasons. First, because the framing assumptions of the debate are still those of a misconception about what is meant by ‘revolution’ and a ‘revolutionary party’, which remains the Mandelites’ strategic objective. Second, because the Mandelites - as they always have - use obscure diplomatic language.
The Mandelites have been pursuing the project of ‘broad parties’ for a long time now, since the failure of their ‘turn to industry’ in 1979-83, and the initial relative success of their participation in the Brazilian Workers Party (PT). I have partly surveyed this history last year, in reviewing the collection New parties of the left produced by SR in 2011.12 The present debate arises from (I think) the first meeting of the FI international committee since it became fully clear that the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste project in France had definitively failed to make the hoped-for breakthrough, and the Parti Communiste Français had been able to ‘recapture’ hegemony on the French left (including a large part of the former Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) through the Front de Gauche alliance with the Parti de Gauche, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Laurent Calasso’s report for the bureau is mainly a narrative. He recognises that the ‘new parties’ have failed. He argues that the capitalist crisis leads people to demand “immediate solutions to the social damage provoked by neoliberal policies”: hence the success of Syriza and the Front de Gauche. His solution to this problem is “the building of anti-austerity fronts or coalitions bringing together the political and social forces opposed to these plans, within the framework of a policy of the united front”.
But he insists that “the experiences of the last 10 years make it necessary to maintain the problematic of the last [FI] Congress  of building broad anti-capitalist parties”. His reasons: first, the continuing “economic, ecological and capitalist crises”. Second, “the perspective of building political parties beyond the framework of our sections to organise the social struggles of the oppressed and exploited ...” Third, “The profile that we need is that of openness to other anti-capitalist organisations, but also and especially to the new generations of activists appearing in the social movements. The experiences of recent years strengthen the need to stabilise such parties by basing them on the forces of the social movements and not on parliamentary positions.” Fourth, “We must also maintain our concern for the international relationships and action of anti-capitalist organisations.” He comments that the FI’s “efforts to have regional meetings and joint actions are clearly standing still.”
The last of these points is absolutely correct. The workers’ movement and the left desperately needs increased internationalism, even at a merely symbolic level, and increased practical coordination and action on the ‘regional’ or continental scale. The other points are much weaker. The first is a trivial banality.
The second is correct insofar as it says the obvious, that the sections of the Mandelite FI are completely inadequate as forms to organise the tasks facing the left. But, as formulated, it has to be read together with the third: the specific orientation to “the new generations of activists appearing in the social movements” and “basing them on the forces of the social movements and not on parliamentary positions”. This is a repetition of the tired old story of New Left anti-parliamentarism.
Already in the 1960s-70s, this represented a retreat from the understanding that the working class needs to take political action under capitalism - adopted by the Hague Congress of the First International in 1872, applied by the Second International and defended by Lenin in 1920 in Leftwing communism. Such old lessons are not necessarily false. The course of political events in the 1970s demonstrated the uselessness of New Left anti-parliamentarism, as the anti-parliamentarists were marginalised by the ‘old left,’ including in the Portuguese revolution. If the NPA has recently had the painful experience of being marginalised by the Front de Gauche, it is partly (if only partly) because the NPA has been insufficiently party-political. People demand political alternatives and strategies, alternatives and strategies for the society as a whole - and this is especially true in times of crisis. An orientation to “the forces of the social movements” will guarantee continued marginalisation.
The critics of the bureau from the left offer different forms of standard ortho-Trotskyism. Jeff Mackler for US SA argues that the objective has to remain the building of mass Trotskyist parties in the standard sense; “Our admitted difficulties stem not from inherent programmatic deficiencies and Leninist democratic centralist norms, but from the long, perhaps longest, period of relative capitalist stability ever.” This sounds like the US SWP in the late 1960s to early 1970s.
Skoufoglou and Quirante are at the opposite end in analysis of the situation; for them, the crisis is not over, class struggles have multiplied globally and the question of power is posed; the large left formations are straightforwardly reformist and, when they are successful and it comes to the crunch, they elect to manage capitalism; this is true also of Syriza, which is moving rapidly to the right; the far right is rising. Hence, “We need national sections, parties and organisations based on class independence, independence from institutions, governments and their budgets, imperialist apparatuses - [in short] from the bourgeois state - that will aspire not only to express, but also to build, social movements and resistances substantially and from a class aspect ... We need an international that encourages unity in action, that does not deny debate and convergence with other currents, but that does not either stand for political or/and organisational fusion with reformism and Stalinism.”
The substantive policy proposed, of working class class-political independence, is sound. But the crisis-urgency-open party argument sounds like the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party before it went quite mad, and the answer - build the sections of the FI - is pretty obviously inadequate: why this Trot fragment rather than one of the others? Or, why can’t the OKDE-S comrades unite with Savas-Michael Matsas’s Workers Revolutionary Party (EEK)?
Alan Davies’s critique is, as I said, from the right. Of the idea of an ‘anti-capitalist party’ adopted by the 2010 FI congress, he says that “It is hard to see this as other than as a description of a revolutionary party, not a broad left formation”. And “The whole approach (of stressing anti-capitalist parties) was and is far too proscriptive. It fails to take into account the political realities in most European countries, where the construction of an anti-capitalist party is not at the present time on the agenda.” He argues against this aim that it was right to participate in Rifondazione Comunista, it was right to participate in the Brazilian PT, it is right to participate in Die Linke, and the FI’s organisation in Greece should participate in Syriza.
But what should they do in these formations? “Broad parties emerge in response to a political reality, or if they don’t they won’t last very long. The character of such parties is determined by the state of the class struggle, the political conditions at the national level, and the history and shape of the labour movement and of the left in that particular country. We can’t determine, in advance, what the character of such parties will be - although we might (hopefully) have a certain influence.” And “We should fight within them to maximise the role they [play] and attempt to keep them in a left direction - which is exactly what the Italian comrades did (to great effect in my view) in Rifondazione.” Similarly, “Our sections should always remain organised within such parties. This allows us both to ensure that we maximise our influence on the direction of the party and to act collectively if the broad organisation moves in the wrong direction, collapses under pressure or goes into a coalition with capitalist parties.”
There is here no clear political content of what the FI’s sections are to fight for in the “broad parties.” And Davies’s endorsement of the Mandelite Sinistra Critica’s policy in Rifondazione is in effect an endorsement of the diplomatic, behind-the-scenes mode of ‘criticising’ Rifondazione’s leadership which left Sinistra Critica at the end of the day unprepared politically for the split which eventually took place. The same problem was seen (and at least in this case recognised by FI survivors) in the split in the Brazilian PT. Davies himself was a party - intimately - to a smaller-scale and caricature version of the same policy in Respect, which both helped to promote the senseless split of the Socialist Workers Party from Respect (by the absence of open discussion before the event), and finally left SR itself walking out of Respect on the utterly ridiculous issue of defending the rump of the Scottish Socialist Party against George Galloway standing in Scotland.
In short, Davies is at one level right that the FI’s adherents were right to participate in various broad-front parties. But he has no clear line of what they should be fighting for these parties to do. He advocates preserving the FI sections - but for what purpose?
So far I have formulated my points as specific criticisms, within the framework of the assumption that Trot groups might have some use. (My actual belief is that they are both part of the problem of the left and - potentially - part of the solution.) But it is also worth looking at the issue, as it were, from the outside. People who participated in the Socialist Alliance and Respect as independents were alienated by the manipulative operations and frontism of the major organised groups, especially the SWP.
But in this respect SR’s ‘twin-track’ line, and the Mandelite operations in Rifondazione and the PT which it imitates, are just as manipulative and frontist as the SWP’s operations in ‘united fronts’ and in formations like the Socialist Alliance and Respect (and, indeed, the SWP faction’s operations in the Scottish Socialist Party). The reason is that the Mandelites bloc with the centre or right in the broad front or party in order to preserve its ‘broadness’, while recruiting to their own organisation on a political basis which they are absolutely unwilling to vote for the broad party to adopt. The reality is that the SWP, which behaves similarly, learned this behaviour in the first instance from the Mandelites, who had been doing it long before the SWP’s creation of the Right to Work Campaign front in 1975.
The manipulative character extends to the ‘inside track’ of ‘Marxist unity’, too. Hearse’s speech says that “we should adopt the algebraic formula ‘for Marxist unity’ or ‘a united democratic revolutionary organisation’, but the arithmetic content we should for the moment advance is a unification of the ACI, ISN and SR as a platform within the Left Unity. A united democratic revolutionary tendency would be a major force for opening up the path to a new broad left party and would be a permanent rebuke to the sects. It would have a powerful attraction within the far left and hopefully be much more capable of opening up a dialogue with radical youth. This is an exciting prospect: it would open up the road to a major renewal of left and revolutionary forces.”
Why just the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and International Socialist Network, not other groups? Hearse’s answer is: “It is obvious that there is an objective convergence going on, with the ACI and the ISN saying a lot of the same things that we are about revolutionary organisation today”; and: “It’s true that many of the things said by the ACI and ISN have been themes in our politics for a long time - internal democracy, feminism, a less sectarian attitude to the rest of the left - in fact going back to the Fourth International documents on women’s liberation and socialist democracy at the 1979 world congress. But other comrades, particularly crystallised in the book by Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy,13 have deepened this critique and allowed us to see the crisis of the sect formation in a new and more profound way.” How have they ‘deepened’ it? The speech does not tell us.
Here is another place where memory comes in. I personally remember Phil making an extremely similar speech about convergence, and the possibilities opened up by fusion, at the time of the creation of the International Socialist Group in 1987 - the ISG was a fusion of Trotskyist groups which had in common their principled commitment to ... entry in the Labour Party. But, four years later, most of those who did not come from the old International Marxist Group were gone (although some leaders of the old Socialist Group round Alan Thornett and John Lister stayed on board, most of their membership left). Because ... the Mandelites’ commitment to entry was in reality superficial and soon after the fusion they were rapidly shifting towards the Chesterfield ‘Socialist Conferences’ as an alternative arena for activity.
More recently, there seems to have been an equally ephemeral fusion between the ISG and some of the ex-SWPers who were on the Galloway side of the split in Respect, though I certainly do not know the details. But the underlying problem is the same: the Mandelites, at least in Britain, are all tactics and no stable principles. Which is reflected in the emptiness of Davies’s perspective for political action in the ‘broad parties’.
We need to talk about capitalism
All of this, so far, is negative critique. What can be said positively? I am going to outline something very limited about goals and their implications for means.
I start with a negative. It is a common illusion of the large majority of the left that the rightward shift of Labour (a) means that this party no longer represents the working class, and (b) creates political space where Labour used to be. Hence, as one of the posters on the LU site puts it, the “real choice” is between “the mixed economy” and “unfettered neoliberalism”.
This is a mistake. The International Monetary Fund has called for a shift away from ‘austerity’, yes, but towards ‘structural reform’: that is, more privatisations and attacks on trade unions, wages and conditions. Utterly trivial left rhetoric from Hollande in France evoked a minor flight of capital or ‘capitalists’ strike’. Until the most recent speeches on welfare, ‘Red Ed’ stories about Ed Miliband were a staple of the press (and no doubt they will continue to be). Capitalist policy could today be summed up as a slogan: ‘No return to the 70s!’ In spite of panic in 2008-09, 2008 has not changed this.
In other words, a return to the ‘mixed economy’ is not on the table under current conditions. ‘Neoliberalism’ is merely ‘progress’ towards the normal capitalism which existed down to the Russian Revolution. The (very large) welfarist/‘full employment’/‘mixed economy’ concessions of 1945 and after resulted from the combination of the geopolitics of Soviet troops on the Elbe with western working classes massively armed. They will not return until capitalist power is under threat.
It is utterly senseless to suggest, as Joe Lo does, that the word ‘capitalism’ is an obsolete 19th-20th century idea which separates the left from ‘ordinary people’. It is in absolutely routine current use in the mainstream media. Precisely the discussions which call neoliberalism into question are discussions of the future of ... capitalism.
The crash of 2008 is not a story of nasty bankers and CEOs ripping us off. It is true that they are thieving shop managers with their hands in the till. But that is not what caused the bubble or the crash, or the polarisation of rich and poor.
The underlying problem is that human productive activity round the globe is linked in a global division of labour. We cannot retreat from this global linkage without megadeaths from starvation. This productive activity is coordinated - very imperfectly - through the money mechanism. It is this inherent imperfection which produces both polarisation of rich and poor, and recurring crises: the ‘east Asian crisis’, the ‘dot-com crash’, the ‘credit crunch’ and a series of periodic crashes going back to the 1760s.
At the same time, the scale of monetary transactions in capitalism requires ‘credit money’ (there is not enough gold and silver), which requires central banks and financial markets, which requires states backed by particular groups of capitals (our own British state founders in 1688 were funded by drug dealers - sugar, tobacco, alcohol - and people-traffickers known as slave traders). States are in competition with each other: talk of ‘British competitiveness’ describes a real truth under capitalism. Proxy competition, and the need to show that ‘our gang’ is the biggest on the street, produces wars in the third world on an escalating scale of destruction. Eventually, this proxy competition will issue in great-power war, as it has repeatedly since the dawn of capitalism.
All of this crap grows out of infernal imperatives which are created by coordinating production through the money mechanism, and which impact on all market actors, large and small. It is as much the demand of millions of small savers from the middle class for higher returns as the decisions of speculators in the financial markets that drives market bubbles and crashes.
Another world is possible
To break these infernal imperatives, we need to consciously and openly coordinate our productive activities: to create a cooperative commonwealth, as it was put in the Erfurt programme in the 1890s.
Such a social order would have to set human development and the human metabolic interaction with nature as its central goals - as opposed to either profitability or improved productivity or savings. Collective decisions on work which is necessarily coordinated can and could free space for individual choices about what is not necessarily coordinated.
But it requires two features which may, from the standpoint of the present, look uncomfortable.
The first is that we will have to - as it were - live with our clothes off. There can be no right to privacy, because it is the millions of private decisions which create the infernal imperatives of capitalism. The world is tending this way - libertarian Silicon Valley businessman Scott McNealy said in 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
It remains a problem that the left has not begun to get over it, in spite of the fact that cooperative coordination of our productive work requires the end of privacy. The reality is that this lack of transparency is a present problem with the functioning of LU (as witnessed by our reports of its meetings). It is also a problem which SR shares with the SWP, although the SR leadership’s privacy takes the form of diplomacy in public, rather than of ridiculous pseudo-clandestinity (SWP conferences) and censorship.
The second is that, though there will always be some unpleasant jobs to be done, and some jobs which involve someone giving orders to coordinate activities, no-one should get landed with doing an unpleasant job, or taking orders, all their life. But there is a reverse side to this, which is the ‘uncomfortable’ side: no-one gets to do a job they love, or to give orders, all their life.
This problem is actually a big part of the predicament facing the left as a whole. Too many people are too unwilling to accept being in a minority and acting nonetheless in a disciplined way, and hence they walk out; and leaders act pre-emptively to bar the possibility that minorities might become majorities and force them to stand down from their leading roles, thereby triggering splits.
The aim of the cooperative commonwealth - socialism - can be an inspiring alternative to ‘capitalist realism’. What cannot be an inspiring alternative is a regime of permanent leaders and permanent followers, which is also a regime of secrets and lies (or, in other words, rerunning Stalinism). How we act now in these respects deeply affects whether we can be taken seriously.
1. May 21: http://leftunity.org/socialism-or-something-less.
2. May 21: http://leftunity.org/saying-revolutionary-less-wont-make-us-less-revolutionary.
3. June 13: http://leftunity.org/mind-your-language.
4. www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/manifesto.html. The editors are Stuart Hall, Michael Rustin and Doreen Massey, with contributions in addition from Bea Campbell, Ben Little and Alan O’Shea. For the Marxism Today link, see www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/about.html.
5. http://socialistresistance.org/5110/build-a-broad-left-party-fight-for-marxist-unity. I say very long-standing because it goes all the way back to the International Marxist Group of the 1960s, the paper The Week and the Institute for Workers’ Control.
6. Laurent Carasso (for the bureau), ‘To continue the debate on broad parties’: www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3002.
7. A Davies, ‘A contribution to the broad parties debate’: www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?artice3l003.
8. J Mackler, ‘The debate on broad parties’: www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3004; M Skoufoglou and G Quirante, ‘“Anti-austerity governments” are not a solution: for a militant and revolutionary international’: www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3005.
9. As, for example, in the 2012 FI IC ‘Report on the international political situation’ (www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2568).
10. I stress political because it is the creation of a more stable form of capitalist rule, rather than economic innovations, which made the 17th century Netherlands and 18th century England appear superior to the Italian city-states.
12. D Bensaïd and others New parties of the left London 2011; review: Weekly Worker June 7 and June 14 2012.
13. L Cooper and S Hardy Beyond capitalism? The future of radical politics London 2013. For a considerably more jaundiced view of the book as reasserting an old politics see Harley Filben’s review in this paper, January 24 2013.