Originally posted by the Anticapitalist Initiative. Images added by North Star — In the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s the working class is facing a massive assault on living standards and rights. The capitalists are well organised at a national an international level, when a government looks like it is to fall and break the austerity consensus it is quickly propped up. In Europe this has come through technocratic governments in Italy and Greece and budgetary oversight by the core capitalist powers Germany and France. In Britain we have faced a concerted onslaught yet our movement has offered little in reply. The trade unions in their current state have proved to be no shield to the Conservative-led government attacks. The Labour Party, rarely a fighter for the working class is positioning itself as the “little-less” party. A little-less austerity. A little-less racism. A little-less environmental destruction. A little-less of everything the current government is doing. Ultimately they offer more of the same medicine on a smaller spoon.
In this space the left has been incapable of moving forward in Britain (and in many other countries). The lack of a mass movement has compounded the long-term decline and fracturing of left despite the hopes around successive unity projects over the last two decades. We face a movement that is split on issues of ego, history and petty bureaucratic regimes. Anyone unaware of the way the left normally operates will find the idea of radical organisations closing down debate and forcing out those with slight theoretical or tactical disagreements extremely strange and alienating. Yet, this is the norm among the detritus of the left. Even on a basic level, fighting the cuts, the left has proven itself inadequate. Apart from having four “national” anti-austerity campaigns run by three different Trotskyist groups all four have tailed behind the left-wing of the trade union bureaucracy. Despite many lofty pretensions these campaigns organise no genuine rank-and-file networks to build an alternative centre of power within the movement. If we want to make any serious impact we must move beyond the infantile separation of the anti-cuts movement and form a united anti-cuts federation.
We would still need to go further, we need to think about bringing the left together in a new organisation. In Britain the experience of unity initiatives is an open sore that led to further decline and demoralisation. As the gap between tasks and resources continue to widen we have to again try and come together. Our starting point must be a re-appraisal of past attempts in Britain and abroad of how we have got unity initiatives so wrong in the past but also what new projects such as Syriza in Greece and the New Anticapitalist Party in France can teach us. If we want to see a fightback, if we want to live up to the challenges we have set ourselves as a movement then we must build a credible alternative to the capitalist parties.
Unity: Some lessons from Europe
Despite a promising start the ongoing disintegration of the United Left Alliance in Ireland has served as another example in sectarian short-sightedness and opportunism. Despite the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s the left has for the most part remained a marginal force offering left-Keynesianism as a solution to the crisis. In Ireland the coming together of the Socialist Party, People Before Profit/Socialist Workers Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) and some small grouplets and individuals managed to organise a serious political challenge that propelled five Teachtaí Dála (deputies) into the Dail at the 2011 general election. Yet within 18-months the ULA had lost all momentum and most of its credibility under the strain of opportunism and sectarianism.
The WUAG and the Socialist Party have now left the ULA and consider the project for all intent and purposes dead. The hopes after the election of a new united party were dashed as the largest groups refused to give the ULA a life of its own, for the Socialist Party and SWP the ULA was a secondary project at the mercy of whatever turn their organisations decided to take. This of course left the non-aligned workers in a situation where they had little to no control over the direction of the ULA. As we have learnt over and over again such a top-down stitch up stymies attempts to grow a genuine organisation of the class. Furthermore the ULA followed another common theme of such initiatives, it went with the lowest common denominator politics, tacking ever so slightly to the left of the unions.
The collapse of the ULA is of course not a new phenomenon on the European left. It is worth looking at a few other cases where the left got it terribly wrong. During the period of relative economic stability and growth, from the collapse of the Soviet Union until 2007, the European left embarked on several projects to forge a new path. In Italy the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) attempted to lead the way in re-establishing the communist left in Italy from 1991; drawing in thousands of workers and building within the new anti-capitalist and later the anti-war movements. Eventually the PRC broke apart after supporting Italy’s contribution to the occupation of Afghanistan, resulting in electoral wipe out with the fall of the second Prodi government (2006-2008).
The idea behind the PRC was simple, re-organise the remnants of the communist left after the liquidation of the Communist Party of Italy into the Democratic Party of the Left. Furthermore to create a space for discussion and debate through building deeper connections to workers and those involved in the new social movements. In the process, under the leadership of Fausto Bertinotti, PRC gave up the idea of being a party that politically led the anti-capitalist movement and decided to be at the service of the movement instead.1 Whether this was nothing more than a manoeuvre to secure the support of radical youth is debatable as the party politically drifted consistently towards social democracy and towards a position that a plural left that could and should govern.
In a short time it became the leading left force in Europe at the heart of the social forum movement. The PRC maintained an energetic life moving with the ebb and flow of the new social movements, participating in elections and party building. Whilst some gains were made, the task of refounding communism eventually fell off the agenda completely. The PRC never held a single congress dedicated to its programme.2 This lack of clarity and direction helped create an organisation that depended on a leadership capable of grasping the political opportunities and a largely passive membership that could be turned from one tactical line instantly.
The next breakthrough for the left came from Germany with Die Linke thanks to the fusion of The Labour and Social Justice Electoral List and (WASG) the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in 2007. The latter being the collected remnants of the former ruling party of the German Democratic Republic; Socialist Unity Party (SED). The unity of these forces along with smaller Trotskyist organisations such as Socialist Alternative (SAV) opened an opportunity for the left to elaborate a political alternative to the Social Democrats. The merger became almost inevitable after a PDS/WASG joint list in 2005 received 8.7% of the vote, giving them 54 MPs.
While Die Linke enjoyed brief enthusiasm from left-wing activists and some attention among workers it failed to match up to it promise. The party was run top-down with a bureaucracy cementing itself around charismatic and popular figures like party leaders Oscar Lafontaine, Katja Kipping and Gregor Gysi. This top-down alliance was just as much about vote seeking as it was the formation of a credible all German left party.3 After the merger was cemented in 2007 any hopes of creating a radical left evaporated. The party suffered due to a bureaucratic internal life and a leadership looking for ways to continue the involvement in local and regional Government as the PDS had previously done. It should be remembered that in 2002 the PDS had dropped any pretence of opposing the social market economy4 with the adoption of its Grundatzprogramm. In Berlin and Brandenburg Die Linke entered a “red-red” government with the SPD. In exchange for ministerial posts and a taste of power Die Linke opened the door to severe cuts. Workers can have no confidence in a party that talks about defending welfare and services but then does the opposite in action.
This tendency to move closer to the SPD in hope of a “red-red” government at a federal level meant limiting the politics of Die Linke. Making sure the party was just to the left of the SPD and in doing so making it become almost irrelevant as the SPD took a left-turn in rhetoric in a period of prolonged opposition. At Erfurt in 2011 Die Linke voted on a new programme involving hundreds of amendments. At the gathering deputy-party chair Sarah Wagenknecht called on delegates to “pass a programme that you know we can all support”. After years of discussion delegates came away from that conference with a vague commitment to the welfare state but also for a “fundamental transformation of society, that will overcome capitalism.” Whilst this is vague, it does give revolutionaries in Die Linke an opportunity to press the reformist leadership when it makes compromises.
Hope of a breakthrough came from France when the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire (LCR) dissolved itself into Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in 2009. The process to form the NPA came on the back of riots and growing discontent in the banlieues in 2007 where the LCR and others on the revolutionary left sought to strengthen and politicise working class youth frustration. The process to create the NPA involved mass meetings across France where the role of a anticapitalist organisation was debated in full with the breadth of opinions ranging from anarchism to social democracy to environmentalism to Trotskyism.
After months of discussion and debate delegates representing over 450 local committees and 9,100 members convened to thrash out a programme, organisational structure and ensured “that there was maximum discussion and that as many delegates as possible were able to intervene; in one of the more contentious debates, after the opposing amendments were moved, over 60 delegates contributed to the discussion. The discussions were also characterised by an impressive number of women, including younger women, who intervened in the debates. The seriousness with which the comrades accorded to the process of democratic discussion was striking.” Politically the NPA did declare itself as revolutionary but did not take on the Trotskyist traditions of the LCR. This was positive in that it broke with a movement stuck in the past but also negative as clarity was lost on important issues such as secularism and electoralism.
The founding conference was dogged by the issue of electoral strategy and whether or not to agree to common lists and pacts with other left parties. The hope of many of the NPA leaders was to ally with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (PdG), Parti Communiste Francaise (PCF) and even possibly the Trotskyist grouping led by Arlette Laguiller, Lutte Ouvrier (LO). Accumulatively their collective votes were 7.7% in 2007 and an historic 10.44% in 2002. There was a real divide within the NPA between those that were looking for a strategic alliance with the rest of the left, even if that meant in a reformist project. Whilst spending so much energy and time thrashing out an electoral strategy the NPA lost momentum. This was not a problem of factionalism as Alex Callinicos has claimed but a real strategic schism between those wanting to back a larger, yet reformist, left unity project and those who insisted on patiently building up the NPA. Whilst it dithered the PdG took over, and with the backing of the bureaucratic machine of the PCF, the charisma of Mélenchon, mass discontent against Sarkozy and a politically weak Parti Socialiste it garnered the support of radical workers. In a massive demonstration over 100,000 attended a rally at the Bastille on 18 March. This movement culminated in last years presidential campaign where mass rallies were held across France with Melenchon winning 11.05% of the vote and coming fourth. In comparison the NPA candidate Philipe Poutou won 1.15%. The lack of a united perspective to build the NPA has led to splits and a decline in membership, activity and prestige. They have been taken over electorally by the Front de Gauche (FdG) and as support shifts from the NPA to the new formation the possibility of a united left organisation committed to revolutionary change and built from the grass roots seems to have been lost for the time being.
Other united left organisations have sprung up across Europe polling small but respectable votes and playing central roles in the working class movement. There have been many mistakes: an overemphasis on electoral politics, a top down approach or a liquidation of revolutionary politics for quick political gains. There have also been positives too: new younger layers have brought energy and dynamism to a left that struggled to move beyond the debates of periods and struggles long passed. In many countries the united left parties offer a public voice to the movements opposing austerity. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the work of Syriza in Greece.
The rise and rise of Syriza
Of all of the left parties to emerge in Europe over the last two decades Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) is proving to be the most important in the current period. Faced with a near total collapse of living standards the Greek working class has shifted their allegiance from a party of government, the “socialist” PASOK to Syriza. Polls in Greece have consistently placed Syriza in a winning position over the last few months, to aid this the leadership has embarked on a process to change Syriza into a unified party.
Syriza’s foundations lie in the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the splits that occurred as the Stalinist parties went into long term decline in the 70s. In the 1980s the pro-Soviet KKE and the eurocommunist5 Greek Left (formerly KKE Interior) formed Synaspismos as an electoral vehicle. This alliance did not last long and in the early 1990s the KKE expelled nearly 45% of its membership, including the current leader of Syriza Alexis Tsipras. Those expelled from the KKE and the Greek Left stayed together in Synaspismos winning a small representation consistently in the Greek Parliament, except in the 1993 election where they failed to reach the 3% threshold.
It was only in 2004 that Syriza came together from Synasmpismo, the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), International Workers Left (DEA), Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA) and others. The basis to launch Syriza was the anticapitalist and anti-war movements that were reaching their zeniths at the beginning of the century. It has thus been able to carve out a space on the left of social democracy so that when it came to the austerity drive dictated by the central European powers it had the organisational capacity and profile to play the leading role in organising the opposition. As a party it contains all sorts of strategic views, revolutionaries and reformists work together and fight to thrash their politics. Politically Syriza treads carefully between anticapitalism and social democracy. If they are tested with power and their policies on the state, Europe and ultimately who controls the means of production remain the same, the result would be a workers’ party managing the capitalist state. What is positive about Syriza, and the reason why communists mustn’t shirk from working inside it, is that it’s an organisation that has deep support among the working class. The battle over whether Syriza can become a thoroughly revolutionary organisation is still being played out. What we can say is that its plurality strengthens revolutionaries giving them space to challenge the leadership and present a strategic alternative. This was the case at their recent conference where the left opposition garnered the support of just over a quarter of the delegates.
Left unity in Britain
Farce. The only word to describe the attempts in Britain over the 20 years to bring together the forces of the left into a single formation. The petty bureaucrats that fester at the top of the revolutionary groups have consistently taken short-term gains and out doing political rivals over the patient and serious work of building a working class political alternative. If you’re into 1970s political chic then Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) could just be the place for you. Unfortunately for the rest of the left hopes of a serious break with the Labour Party in 1996 were quickly diminished as Scargill and his henchmen crushed all dynamism and democratic control. Not long after it was launched members couldn’t get away fast enough, the existing left groups were treated as foreign bodies inside the SLP, much like the real Labour Party, and were hounded out creating an atmosphere of distrust that crippled the possibility of turning a break with Labour by a section of the working class into an opening to forge a new organisation that had credible and deep links within the working class movement. Clearly such a top down approach would fail but this mistake would be repeated again and again.
Another opening came with the growth of local Socialist Alliance’s starting in Coventry from 1992, bringing together 8 local groups in 1996 and eventually becoming a real national entity in 1999. The Alliance became a big tent housing the SWP, the Socialist Party (SP), Workers Power, the British affiliate of the Fourth International: the International Socialist Group (now called Socialist Resistance), the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the leftist remnants of the Communist Party of Great Britain organised around their paper the Weekly Worker, and others.
It opened up a real opportunity for the left to move beyond sect existence, with some honourable exceptions the constituent elements refused to contemplate dissolving their own small organisations to build a united party. This along with the petty conflict between the leaders of the two largest organisations the SWP and the SP for control undermined the work of activists across the country. Despite this we can take some real positives from the attempt. In 2001 Jack Conrad remarked that the “Socialist Alliance has grown in leaps and bounds – above all with the 2001 general election. There were 98 candidates in England and Wales and some 57,000 votes. Many hundreds of recruits were signed up. Scores of new branches sprung into existence. Garnering trade union support is now within our grasp.”6 A patient approach where differences were worked out over time and in practice, where a revolutionary programme was developed through the involvement of all members leading to the liquidation of individual groups into a united party would have been a huge gain for our movement in England and Wales.
With the SP walking out because it could not get its own way and the SWP dragging the project towards a new unity initiative with former Labour MP George Galloway the Alliance collapsed. The new initiative, Respect, drawn up behind the backs of Alliance members, was forced through because of the SWP’s dominance and control. This episode was also characterised by the complete mistrust and contempt that the sect leaders held their members in. Under the leadership of John Rees and Lindsey German the SWP turned itself inside out to accommodate those on their right for short-term electoral gain. For example, the issue of LGBT liberation is a central plank of modern revolutionary policy. This policy however did not sit well with a minority of businessmen and Galloway acolytes who saw it as a barrier to gaining votes and support from Muslim communities. However, it was unlikely Galloway et al. could have stopped Respect from placing LGBT liberation in its 2004 election manifesto unless the SWP backed their homophobic opportunism—which they did with all the crass and schizophrenic double-speak they could muster. Speaking at Marxism in 2003 Lindsey German argued that, “Some Muslims are anti-gay and this is perfectly true… I am in favour of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth”.
Respect represented a political and organisational low point for the left in Britain. It too was to fall apart after the leadership of the SWP proved a little too brittle to criticism from George Galloway and his allies. There was then the farcical split which saw several of its opportunist councillors switch from Respect to Labour and even the Conservative Party. Respect still exists but is nothing more than a sect to be pushed and cajoled into action on the whims of Galloway as the exit of Salma Yaqoob, a well liked activist in Birmingham, demonstrated on the back of Galloway’s remarks on rape and Julian Assange.
In Scotland things moved quicker, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was established in 1998 out of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and on the back of surprisingly good election results that saw the one time anti-Poll Tax leader Tommy Sheridan win a seat to the new Scottish Parliament. This was the impetus for the SWP to finally join. This achievement was to be surpassed in 2003 when Sheridan was joined by 5 more socialist MSP’s; Rosemary Byrne, Frances Curran, Colin Fox, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie. Things started to unravel a year later when the majority of the leadership refused to back Sheridan’s attempt to sue tabloid papers for defamation over accusations he had visited a swingers club. This soon led to a full split with Sheridan, the SP and the SWP leaving the SSP and where Sheridan’s detractors accused of being, the bane of misogynists everywhere, “feminists”. This was played out in the bourgeois press and duly ensured that nobody kept their seats with the collapse of SSP’s vote. It has yet to recover.
The closest we have come recently to a unity initiative is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which was formed as a comfortable electoral face for the two largest left groups the SWP and the SP. Other left groups have been kept out or at arms length and the decision making structures are monopolised by trade union or party leaders with no input from the wider movement. Rightly, a group of non-aligned TUSC supporters organised themselves into the Independent Socialist Network (ISN) and have correctly called for TUSC to be transformed so that it does not “just turn up at election time and then disappear once polling day has past. It has to be involved in workers’ struggles at work and in the communities, day in and day out.” A focus on building local groups that have real links with the broad movement is essential for any unity initiative to get off the ground and grow. This is why the recent Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI) conference supported a motion that in part read that “we particularly want to help the development of grassroots local campaigns. The ACI acts as a network of autonomous local groups that each have their own life and dynamic. These local groups do not seek to replace the work of local anti-cuts campaigns, but bring together activists within the movements who want to see an organised anti-capitalist politics, one that overcomes some of the divisions which still blight the left.”
Since I began writing this a crisis has opened up within the ranks of the SWP around the handling or rape allegations against a leading member. This is also a crisis for the whole left, many good activists and workplace militants will drift away or be hindered by the rumours and accusations circulating on activist blogs, the left press and a couple of bourgeois outlets. Trade union bureaucrats will be ready to use the accusations to silence activists. This places greater responsibility on revolutionaries to unite and present an alternative that is thoroughly committed to women’s liberation.
We have so many groups that have been around far too long and achieved far too little. The left plays sect survival games picking up one or two members here and there but this amounts to nothing more than life support. As the mass movement against austerity is constantly stalled by the bureaucracy, lack of organisation and confidence we must take this time to rebuild and reflect. We need to be able to present a united voice within the movement that can take on the trade unions and the Labour Party when they inevitably undermine action. Armed with a united organisation we can begin to organise effective resistance against austerity and push forward in linking the daily battles with the goal of a communist revolution.
This article could not be a review of every left unity initiative over the last few decades and clearly there are some important examples that I have missed. However, we can see that there are common and recurring mistakes that we can and must avoid in the coming period. I don’t want to discuss tactics or slogans here, any revolutionary organisation will constantly re-make and re-model these when tested in the movement. If not it will become stale and out of touch like so many of the left groups today. What follows is what I see as basic strategic starting points; a communist rudder to steer our work within the movement.
Organisation and Democracy
Competing ideas and analyses exist and are fought over in society on a daily basis. Whether at work, in the home or at the pub it is unlikely that two people will share the same understanding of society and the political issues of the day. Bizarrely life on the left does not accept this reality; unity in action and discipline against the class enemy have been used to forge left group after left group that is hostile and fearful of differences. Questions of history, tactics or voting for this or that candidate get elevated to the status of principle. Often means get disconnected from ends leading to all sorts of errors, abuses and public humiliations for the left. Yet there is a different approach taken by a growing number of activists in Britain, one that was summed up by Ernest Mandel when he wrote that “If the revolutionary Marxists leave the slightest impression that under the dictatorship of the proletariat the political freedoms of the workers will be narrower than under bourgeois democracy – including the freedom to criticise the government, to have opposition parties and an opposition press – then the struggle to overcome the propagators of parliamentary illusions will be incommensurably more difficult, if not condemned to defeat.”
We need to move away from the notion that difference in left organisations is a cancer to be removed whether through bureaucratic prescription or extreme hostility against dissenters by the leadership and their supporters. A plural organisation would be one that would have open faction rights, forums and bulletins that discuss every aspect of political work. There would be papers and websites that publicly reflect debates within the organisation and within the revolutionary movement generally.
When a workers’ party joins a government, especially as a minority partner, they often lose legitimacy among the working class and tend to be ripped apart by splits over how and if the party’s representatives should support the government. PRC in Italy lost all political credibility when it joined Romano Prodi’s government and supported the war in Afghanistan. In Germany Die Linke joined regional governments ending up supporting an administration that was openly attacking working conditions and living standards. Again undermining their support and demonstrating how a workers’ party can be co-opted into capital to help manage and control aspirations and resistance. In Britain we have seen the spectacle of a socialist council administration in Liverpool from 1983 to 1986 run by the Militant tendency. Elected on the back of resistance to Thatcher’s attacks, the socialist administration soon suffered the rude awakening of running a council as a capitalist enterprise. As it tried to improve the lives of workers it found itself making redundancies, cutting services and in opposition to daily resistance by workers. This was a disaster for the left and it appeared that the revolutionaries were no different than the usual Labour councils that promise change and deliver very little. If the polls are to be believed Syriza may be faced with forming a majority government soon or asked to join a government of national unity. To do so would be suicide, literally if they leave the army intact, the structures of the capitalist state would distort and turn a workers’ party from a vehicle of social change into a force for compromise.
In times of revolution the question of participation of workers’ organisations in capitalist governments is even more important. During the Spanish Revolution of 1936 to 1939 the most important and inspirational working class organisation, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), collapsed under the pressure of the war and joined the bourgeois government. This is not an attack on the anarchists or the heroic members of the CNT and its organisation yet its support of the republican government has valuable lessons for all of the left. The CNT declared in its paper Solidaridad Obrera that “the CNT accepts that historical necessity in order to serve the country, with the emphasis on winning the war promptly so to avoid the disfigurement of the popular revolution. ”7 Tragically this subordination of the revolution to the capitalist state helped to open the doors to the CNT’s later suppression. The gains made by revolutionary workers and peasants organised through the CNT were rolled back in the name of winning the war, CNT columns were disbanded and attacked, its members arrested and executed by a government it had joined.
President Salvadore Allende’s government in Chile (1970 to 1973) suffered a fate similar to that of the CNT. If failed to demobilise the army and dismantle the capitalist state. When a right-wing officers coup led by Augusto Pinochet broke out the government and the movement that supported Allende were unarmed and massacred. Another example would be the appalling role played by the South African Communist Party in the post-apartheid era. It has shamelessly backed continuous ANC governments that have done little to alleviate extreme poverty and have participated in governments that have seen a small minority of ANC officials and loyalists gather vast amounts of wealth. Once again, the left became associated with wealth, inequality and inaction. If the working class is to take power it has to do so wholesale; it must pull apart the capitalist state, dismantle its armed forces and security agencies. We have to break completely with the politics of compromise, a political method developed by the Stalinists to improve relations and trade between the West and the Soviet Union. The mass revolutionary organisations of the future must uphold the principle of extreme opposition; only when we can carry out the programme of the revolution should we consider taking power.
Build now, build from below
The left seems adept at promoting and trailing behind leaders whose interest in the movement is centred on what they can get out of it for their careers. In Britain we have had whole political projects, Respect and Solidarity, that depended on the whims and actions of an individual that had gained some media attention. This is a symptom of the top-down way in which the left operates. Deals, programmes and leadership positions are traded behind closed doors to then be presented to members. Such a culture undermines dynamic activity at the base, leaderships become intransigent and defending a political perspective is replaced with defending the twists and turns of a leadership. In the run-up to the recent SWP crisis a contribution to the second Pre-conference Bulletin stated that “I had no idea that to: disagree, question, or think differently would be counted as a disciplinary offence.”8 And as if to prove a point the leadership went ahead and expelled four former full-timers for having the audacity to discuss differences on a private facebook discussion. This kind of practice is not limited to the SWP but is all too common on the left. Often such structures are excused and maintained through a certain Stalinised reading of Lenin and the history of the Bolshevik faction. This has somewhat been undone through the work of activist academics in recent decades and bureaucratic domination is simply not acceptable to the majority of activists. The Bolshevik Martyn Liadov reported that policies and tactics were not handed down from on high but developed “by collective creativity of all social democratic organisations.”9
In Britain there are more revolutionaries outside of the organised left than within it. Nothing other than the tireless work of working class activists could bring together a revolutionary organisation that has the participation and following of millions of workers. It is as if, for the sect leaders, the struggle for a democratic, collectivist society; communism is not connected to how we organise in the present. How can we get to a society where everybody has an equal say and an equally valued role in society if we do not practice this now? How can a revolutionary movement be built where obedience, discipline and homogeneity is lauded over debate, enquiry and difference? It can’t. Revolutionary organisations must carry within them the seed of a new society and work in a way that demonstrates the superiority of the collective action and organisation.
The generalisation of Bolshevism from the period of retreat in the Russian Revolution (1918 onwards) along with its implantation onto advanced capitalist countries has dragged the movement down into a spiral of ever diminishing returns and decreasing support. We must be clear, we build in a different time, a different society where capitalism has transformed life and work across the globe. There are no gods, no timeless blueprints towards socialism and no trans-historical organisational form. Our task as a left is to understand the organisation of life under capitalism and build the most appropriate organisation in order to fight it. What we need is an organisation with strong stable links within the working class anchored by communist principles. Such an organisation would be built from the bottom up, local organisations would be given the widest possible scope to participate in the class struggle and disseminate communist ideas.
What is the basis for unity today?
We face an enormous job of mobilising and defending the gains of the working class movement in Britain. All aspects of peoples’ living standards are under attack with little or no coordinated response by the trade unions and the Labour Party. There is an urgent need for the movement to begin to push back against the bureaucracy and build confidence to take action with or without trade union backing. The short-lived student movement in 2010 followed by rioting by working class youths in the summer of 2011 do show that there is widespread anger. It is a testament to the bureaucratic skills of the trade union leaders that they have not called sustained action against the Conservative-led government. Internationally the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East coupled with the eruption of social movements like Occupy Wall Street and Los Indignados have placed the prospect of social change back on the agenda. We have an opportunity to look towards these new movements, deal with the changes within capitalism and build a credible left.
In 1985 Leo Panitch wrote that “it has fallen to socialists in the last decades of this century to undertake the daunting task of establishing new political directions and institutions, much as our forerunners had to do in the last decades of the last. As before, and despite the very different conditions, these will not come out of thin air but will involve the breaking up and amalgamation and development of organizations that went before.”10 Over two decades later we have still not completed this task, we have suffered many defeats and setbacks in the class struggle but we are also to blame. Our movement has spent too much time on get rich quick schemes that were never likely to pay off. The task of rebuilding the left requires patience and an acceptance that any start we make will have to be humble. We will need to debate differences through and build up trust through common work. We must not close off debates early or rush platforms and programmes.
Politically we have to start not only from where we agree but what can bring together a broad organisation. We do not need to have a position on each and every tactic, slogan or campaigning focus what we need is a simple guide to action. We should start with basic revolutionary principles such as internationalism, anti-racism, women’s liberation, the democratic collectivisation of production etc.11 Such a broad revolutionary basis leaves open the route we will take to achieve our goals, allowing for the mistakes we make, and there will be many, to be corrected by the membership organised in permanent or temporary factions but united in their commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society towards communism.
1. Emanuele Saccarell, “Empire, Rifondazione Comunista, and the Politics of Spontaneity”, New Political Science 26, no. 4 (2004): 571.
2. Salvatore Cannavo, “Italy: A Failed Refoundation” in New Parties of the Left, Experiences from Europe, International Institute For Research and Education (London, Resistance Books, 2011)
3. Hilde Coffé and Rebecca Plassa, “Party policy position of Die Linke: A continuation of the PDS”, Party Politics 16, no 6 (2010): 721.
4. Ibid. 728
5. Eurocommunism was a tendency that appeared in the laste 1960s that opposed the domination of national parties by the Soviet Union and wanted to link the parties with the emerging new social movements. In the process of emerging out of the Soviet Union’s grasp the Eurocommunists engaged in a wholesale re-evaluation of the their parties, traditions and politics. With many coming to the conclusion that the era of communist parties was at an end. Ultimately it was the move by generally younger ambitous party leaders away from Stalinism towards Social Democracy. In Britain this resulted in the liquidation of the CPGB into the Democratic Left which soon collapsed.
6. Jack Conrad, “Towards a Socialist Alliance party”, Second edition (London, November Books, 2001): 9
7. Quoted in: José Peirats, “The CNT in the Spanish Revolution: Volume 1” (Oakland, USA. PM Press, 2011): 192
8. Justin, “Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletin No. 2: Opposition to Bureaucratic Centralism” (Socialist Workers Party, 2012): 25
9. Quoted in: Lars T Lih, “Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context” (Chicago, USA. Haymarket Books, 2008): 440
10. Leo Panitch, “Working class politics in crisis: Essays on Labour and the State” (London, UK. Verso, 1986): 52
11. An example of such a broad platform is The Programme of the French Workers Party written by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde in 1880.