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A new socialism for the 21st Century?

John McAnulty 

31 May 2010

The 20th century ended with many socialist organizations at a low ebb. Will new movements be born in the new century? Will the new century require completely new forms of organization7 Will the platform of socialism have to be largely re-written? That appears to be the vision of the majority of activists.

The new movement that they envision will be free of the weaknesses and failings of the past. Discredited ideas of the revolutionary party, a working-class program and of Leninism are to be put to one side, to be replaced by new forms of struggle. The future will be built by broad movements rather than by narrow parties. They will oppose neo-liberalism rather than advocating socialism, sharing an anti-capitalist sentiment rather than a commitment to working class power. Popular protest and electoral alliances will predominate, rather than class action.

This rosy picture of the future is matched by an equally rosy picture of contemporary history. It is accepted that the working class suffered a defeat with the collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the credibility of socialism as an alternative society following the reality of the Stalinist prison-houses. However we are on the march again. Popular anti-American governments have been established in Latin America. A global anti-capitalist movement developed. The Iraq war saw the rise of a mass anti-war movement. Militants are able to draw on the positive examples of the feminist and green movements.

All of the above is open to question. Leaders such as the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez should be defended from imperialist attack, but socialists should not hail him as someone who will emancipate the working class. Socialists should stand four-square for the liberation of women, but should reject the suspect claims of a feminine mystique. We must fight to save our environment, but oppose claims that it stands above the class struggle and can be resolved by lobbying the institutions of capitalism. 

Our role within anti-capitalist movements should have been to argue for a socialist alternative. At the time of the mass anti-war movements our role inside the movements should have been to argue for the defeat of imperialist aggression, not to embrace a pallid zeitgeist of pacifism that was bound to fade away.

Clearly the members of Socialist Democracy are in sharp disagreement with the supporters of a new 21st century socialism. It is difficult however to debate with our opponents because they base their argument on a set of new and unquestioned assumptions which tend to jibe with the traditional methods of Marxism.

Perhaps the most fundamental shift in debate is that it is no longer based around the role of the working class and the challenges faced specifically by it as a class. Given the weakness of the workers and the decay of its traditional parties and trade union organizations, this is perhaps understandable, but again it makes it impossible to use successfully many elements of Marxist analysis.

If the centre of attention moves from the working class to more loosely defined "broad movements" it is difficult to argue for a revolutionary program which, after all, is a set of tasks for the working class, for a revolutionary party designed to put that program to the class, or for the collective discipline required to organise around such a program.

It is all too easy to become viciously sectarian - dismissing those who try to build a party as Leninist dogmatists and those who defend a working class program as "the spotless banner brigade," - hopeless political sectarians unable to engage in the real tasks of the here and now.

In the absence of the working class the tasks that concern leftists become hopelessly self-referential. Socialist unity becomes an end in itself, necessary so that we can win positions in parliamentary assemblies. Old dictums about the impossibility of transforming these institutions into organs of revolution are forgotten. The platform of the united movement becomes whatever collection of radical slogans can be agreed between the diverse elements that make up the coalition.

In these circumstances the political understanding of militants collapses. Democracy is replaced by consensus and attempts to argue a political line appear to be inherently sectarian. The pretensions of social-democratic politicians and trade union bureaucrats are taken at face value. The strategy and goals of the new movement become hopelessly confused, attacks and splits from the right come as a surprise. Organising a political response proves difficult and the broad organizations, lacking an organ of memory, limp from one disaster to another, endlessly repeating the same mistakes.

Supporters of the new movement approach dismiss the lessons of the past. What happened in 1917, in the '30s, in the '60s, won't help us now. Yet at least one issue keeps coming up. That is the dispute about what were called 'popular fronts'.

The communist party of the 1930s, at least within one of the many zig-zags imposed by Stalin, argued that the way to fight fascism was to build the broadest possible unity against it. Broadness meant that the communists should not advance their own program, but restrict unity to that of the most right-wing group willing to support the movement. The Trotskyites, in response, argued for the concept of the 'united front.' Socialists should argue for the broadest unity in action, but should simultaneously argue that a working class program and the building of a mass working class movement which would represent the best defence against fascism.

The popular front proved a disaster. The idea of a socialist and working class movement was abandoned. Those who tried to organise on such a basis were physically attacked by the communist party. The capitalist 'anti-fascists' demanded more and more concessions to conciliate the fascists. Many turned their coat and joined the fascists. Mass slaughter followed the collapse of popular frontism and the rise of fascism to power.

The new movementists of today are haunted by this history. A key principle that they advance is that socialist parties should on no account use their numbers to push through positions. Rather they should look for consensus. 

While everyone should condemn the undemocratic manoeuvring that some left groups indulge in, this principle turns on its head the normal practice of socialist groups. Instead of a minority intervening in large movements to try to win others to a socialist position, we have the left the majority in relatively small organizations, unable to make any political points because the rag, tag and bobtail they have gathered around them do not support socialism and would leave lf it became an issue. Where the left are in a larger grouping, it is an electoral alliance around the positions of the larger group. The politics of the socialist group are never raised because they would lead to the break up of the alliance. What is this but the mistakes of the past repeated, with the same disastrous results?

There is an alternative explanation to the idea that new movements constitute a regroupment of the working class. That is that the long capitalist offensive that began in the 1970's has continued unabated, that the working class has continued to retreat and that its traditional organizations have continued to decay and disintegrate without new structures as of yet arising.

From this perspective revolutionary socialist organizations are part of the working class movement and subject to the same social pressures. For all the talk of new movements, what is actually happening is that many revolutionists are themselves moving to the right and divesting themselves of a program they no longer believe in, rather like soldiers in a defeated army throwing away their weapons in the rout of retreat.

This analysis is borne out by events. In Brazil, years of unity initiatives inside the Workers party led to the Fourth International members giving whole-hearted support to a government implementing the neo-liberal policies they were supposed to oppose and taking up ministerial positions in that government. In Italy the FI group supported the "united left" of Refoundatizone when it entered government and even voted for the deployment of imperialist troops in Afghanistan before the group broke from Refoundatizone in disarray. Die Linke, the unity movement in Germany, has already held power in a regional government and overseen cuts in public services. Most observers see the Left Block in Portugal as essentially a social democratic formation.

In each case the diagnosis of rout holds up. The Left organization abandons its program in the name of unity. The unity forces them to the right. In a tight corner their new allies defend the interests of capital against the interests of the workers. They either acquiesce, in which case they no longer occupy the ground of revolutionary socialism, or they split and are left with a smaller and more demoralised cadre. Never do the unity projects lead to advances for the working class. They either move to the right or collapse into squabbling factions. Never are any lessons learnt. The socialist groups do not return to their core policies but wind up the tired unity process all over again.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of rout comes from the former French section of the Fourth International, the League Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR). This organization spent decades on the unity trail, aiming for alliances with Stalinists and social democrats. Its original program figured less and less to the point where they gave way on one of the central tenets of Trotskyism and called for a vote for the capitalist candidate in the French presidential elections on the grounds that this was necessary to halt the rise of fascism - a classic repetition of catastrophic popular front policies of the past.

Failing in the search for unity partners, the LCR simply dissolved itself and junked its political program, presenting 'unity' with its own periphery as the cover. In the end we had a somewhat larger organization, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) with vague revolutionary sentiments and a strong commitment to electoral interventions and electoral alliances. The new organization gained 2% in the 2010 elections. This is the vote that was available to the LCR - the only thing missing is the politics!

In the rout there is confusion around both methods and goal. Some leftists remain inside the shell of their own organization while simultaneously presenting social-democratic politics outside. Some retain their organizational structure in order to manipulate a front organization - always in the direction of reformist politics. Others demand that socialists go 'all the way' and give the demands of the movement priority over their own program. 

Some leftists see the goal of the movement as being a fifth international led by the populist Hugo Chavez in alliance with Latin American nationalist movements. Others look to anti-capitalist and green groups. Others still look to alliances with sections of the trade union bureaucracy. Few look to the working class and to the revolutionary tradition of socialism. Many have replaced political differences with organizational sectarianism, less and less willing to work together even as the genuine differences disappear.

So what is the alternative? Is the spotless banner slander correct? Are the critics of the movementists simply purists unwilling to play their part in bringing new forms of struggle into play? 

There is one obvious advantage to holding to a formal working class program. That is that you retain ownership of the rich tradition of Marxist analysis and remain able to apply that analysis - the current convulsions of global capitalism show just how relevant this can be. 

The problem is how can that program be applied in a time of retreat? 

There is no easy answer. It is the working class that acts, not the revolutionists independently of the class. Revolutionaries prepare for that action, try to support and strengthen that action when it arrives, unite with the vanguard sections of the class when the forward rush begins to form the revolutionary party - not some self proclaimed sect, but a vital organ of a revitalised class.

One the central tenets of Marxism is that there will be such a resurgence of the class. At the end of the long chain of exploitation, in times of crisis the workers have no alternative but to fight back.

In advance of such an upsurge the revolutionists have one overwhelming duty. That is to learn from the working class.

So the question "What sort of socialist movement for the 21st century?'' Is transformed into: "What sort of working class for the 21st century? For socialists the question becomes: "What are the needs of the working class? What must they do to defend themselves?

The convulsions of the global credit crunch make it immediately evident that the 21st century will be a period of life and death struggles between capital and the working class. It is further evident that it is the organized working class that will lead these struggles. All sections of society will be involved, but not as autonomous broad movements - rather behind the big battalions of the working class. It is equally evident that the workers urgently need to burst the bounds of the nation state and organize on a global level.

This thesis is dramatically illustrated by the response of Greek workers. No matter what the outcome of that struggle, its nature as a movement of the working class cannot be gainsayed. Equally evident was the response of capitalism - in part panic at the possibility of a workers revolt, in part cynical manipulation of racist sentiment to divide Greek and German workers, further underlining the need for an internationalist response.

Even in countries like Ireland, where there is no significant opposition, the central issue is the vote around the public sector union leaders proposal to support the austerity program, confirming yet again the centrality of the organized working class.

If events show workers at the centre of new struggles, the same cannot be said for their existing organisations. The social democratic organizations across Europe have been to the forefront in pushing forward the austerity offensive. The trade union bureaucrats, often with close links with the Social Democrats, accept that the workers should pay for the bankers. When they stage protests it is to demand that they be invited into the tent to devise a gentle way of imposing the cuts. (No-one ever finds a gentle way, but the bureaucrats never let go of the bosses hands).

There will be a new socialism for the 21st century. It will not emerge from a rainbow coalition but from the organized working class. It will not emerge from a gradual greening of existing leaderships but from the struggle to defeat and supplant existing leaderships and build a new movement. It will organize, not around a broad platform, but around a program leading to the socialist transformation of society. 

The only alternative is to pay and pay again in an ongoing bailout of failing capitalist institutions. 

Karl Marx presented the working class as the agent of historical change not because they had an inherent moral superiority to other groups but because, at the end of the day, the workers have no choice. That was true in the time of Karl Marx. It is true today.


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