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Socialism and the Revolutionary Party

By guest contributor Gerry Fitzpatrick

28 October 2008 

The Political Destruction Produced by Capital

Socialists when faced with the job of describing the future of capitalist destruction always seem to reach for a comic analogy. When the great Marxist writer and cultural critic István Mészáros was asked to speak at a recent Marxist conference on how best to describe current catastrophe he recalled a meeting he had in Paris in 1968 with the French critic Lucien Goldman. Goldman had like many intellectuals of the time subscribed to thesis of the sociologist Herbert Marcuse that capitalism had now stabilised to the point where ‘Crisis Capitalism’ had been replaced with ‘Organised Capitalism’ which had banished the recurrence of crisis. When Goldman had finished explaining this to Mészáros, Mészáros stated that he, “profoundly disagreed”, Goldman then put this direct question to Mészáros:

“Do you mean to say that we can have again – ever again – a crisis like the world economic crisis of 1929-33?

To which Mészáros replied:

“Lucien, compared to the crisis we are heading for – the 1929?33 crisis would look like a vicar’s tea party.” 
And that was unquestionably right – but he then went on to make a more significant observation about the effect of the crisis on European Social Democracy. Where parties in Britain, Italy, France and Germany had changed as Gore Vidal has put it - into “one party – with two right wings”, who are now totally devoted to extending the political rights of capital. That is also unquestionably true. But this has had other important effects and consequences.

Ralph Miliband and The Decline of Social Democracy

Some twenty-five years before I. Mészáros made that observation on the state of the social democratic parties; Ralph Miliband made an appeal for Marxist parties to work together as a response to the rightward drift of Social Democracy. He did not make a good speech, he gave no analysis. In the limited time that was allotted he simply made an appeal for Marxist parties to co?operate on civil rights campaigns – for workers rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. 

Quite a number who had listened were not sure why he had made the appeal - a few were openly hostile. This was a great pity, as he had in fact written and thought very deeply about the political and social consequences of the future failure of the Social Democracy and the Labour party in particular to avert the political decline of the Labour Movement and protect workers rights. The majority of those present had of course spent some time promoting their own party as the best advocate of such rights – indeed the SWP as it was then, thought  the issue was one of struggle rather than being part of  ‘single issue campaigns’. That was understandable as such appeals (and the campaigns themselves) were often part of Stalinist political strategies of the Communist Party and the Labour Left. Doing such work as part of a ‘Broad Left’ in trade unions and in political campaigns generally, had been standard practice for at least since the late 1960s. And part of this Broad Left strategy in campaigns, was to block any independent revolutionary group from gaining political ground. 

The 1980-1990s Social Democracy The Collapse of the Labour Left and The Communist Party

Miliband’s thinking was something of an underestimation – it wasn’t just that falling rate of profit would produce a Social Democracy which moves generally more rightward; the effect of this right ward movement on the Left and (Marxist) parties and their ideas also concerned him. In that this would not just be a matter of policy and organisation but of the consequences of being part of the changing and evermore reactionary formation of Social Democracy itself. As Miliband had pointed out 

The argument, [about the Labour Party] of course, is not that the working class was clamouring for more socialism and turned away from the Labour Party because its leaders did not provide it. It is rather that the policies which these leaders pursued appeared to provide fewer and fewer reasons for workers to vote Labour. The wonder let it be said again, is that so many workers remained faithful to Labour. However, the responsibility for decline and failure cannot simply be fastened on people like Wilson and Callaghan, heavy though their responsibility is: it must rather be attributed to a whole political orientation, namely social democracy and its will to manage a capitalist social order without ever seeking in practice to bring about a radical transformation of any of its basic features

Miliband was of course quite right to flag up the future disaster of Social Democracy as first the Labour Left and then ‘deep entryist’ Trotskyist Parties such as Grant’s Militant group and Ali’s the International Marxist Group failed to achieve the left take over of the Labour Party from within.  Then came the very public disaster of Liverpool Council in 1984 were Militant took their seats as the Labour Left and tried to govern the city. Their spectacular failure was used by the Labour leadership to demolish the ‘entryist’ project and what remained of the Left. The political success of Livingstone’s Labour (unlike the Militant disaster in Liverpool) managed to capture and run London for a short time (1981-1986).  Livingstone’s Labour was not a new idea – it was in fact a carbon copy of  had been already tried by Labour left in Sheffield. What seemed new was that it had made enough connection to London’s various communities to breathe life into the illusions in and of a reforming Social Democracy.  The Thatcher Government put an end to those illusions as it abolished the political independence of the local ‘state’ and centralised control. When Livingstone was elected as Mayor in 2000 not only were his socialist aims abandoned he had by his re?election in 2004 become fully corporatist – seeing the financial sector as the provider of London’s urban renewal.

The Decline and Collapse of The Communist Party

 For the Communist Party the defeats of the late 1970s and early 1980s meant that not only had ‘the forward march of labour halted’ as Eric Hobsbawn had argued, but so as to to gain the ground that the left had lost it meant joining the rightward march of Social Democracy.  Miliband was quite direct about how the Communist Parties’ New Revisionism or ‘New Times’ as they liked to call it, was a general attack on those who wished to keep working class politics as part of the core of their political work. 

Nor is there any good reason to believe that this recomposed working class is less capable of developing the commitments and ‘class consciousness’ which socialists have always hoped to see emerge. The ever recurring notion that the contemporary working class has been finally integrated into capitalism, or that it has irrevocably been reconciled to it, or that it has been irreversibly splintered into divided and conflictual elements, is as unfounded today as it was yesterday. (R. Miliband The New Revisionism)
Miliband along with other Marxists who opposed this move to the right were categorized as a ‘fundamentalists’. Not that the old programme of the Communist party had any real connection with workers democracy – and it would be appropriate at this point to quote from the Communist Party’s programme The British Road To Socialism and mock it’s pretensions. I can well remember the response of one member of the International Socialists describing it in 1976 as ‘a comic’. However, when I read it myself, I was struck by its language – which was the language of modest liberal assumption – the idiom of an annual report of some large charitable foundation – the very stuff of Social Democracy and its illusions of inclusivity. It was then the programme of a party of some 20,000 members. Within five years the programme was completely abandoned and within twelve the party itself had ceased to exist. Social Democracy can’t be held as completely responsible for that implosion -the end of Soviet Union was an important component, but the aim to find a parliamentary or governmental home (for socialism) also played its part. All together what resulted can be described simply: those Marxists who were in any way politically related to, or who had tried to become part of Social Democracy were destroyed as a radical force in politics. 

The Brutality of the State

Miliband thought the answer to the rightward drift of Social Democracy was a new grass roots movement – Socialist Centres – that would work in the opposite way to Social Democracy. Workers would be brought from Labour Party type reformism to a more appropriate place. And I use the phrase ‘appropriate place’ deliberately because it best describes Miliband’s aims as those of modest common sense. Why? Because in actual fact what he had lobbied for since the early 1960s had come into existence in a different form by the late 1970s. 

Following the effects of the Tory industrial relations and immigration acts and more significantly the rise of the SUS laws, working class communities had founded Law Centres to help working class people combat the rightward drift of the state.  These were not Citizen’s Advice Bureaus but political practices setup for political purposes. There was of course a lot of overlap – socialists not only helped setup the Law Centres, but they would later meet and establish socialist bookstores either in the same building or nearby. They were not party organisations as such but were an effective amalgam of social, party and legal professionals focused on their various tasks but adding up to more than the sum of their parts. 

Many of these Centres were more often than not Trotskyist in nature. Some were connected to parties in the background as in Lambeth where Lee Jasper and Ken Livingstone’s organisation had an informal relationship with the Workers Revolutionary Party. Some became successful Legal practices, others in East London (the Centreprise complex) and West London (Southall) had a more visible connection with the International Socialists and later the SWP. Those that had a more direct and visible connection with a party – were of course more likely to be targeted by fascist arsonists or direct state attacks such as those by the Police’s Special Patrol Group in Southall in 1979, killing one socialist and almost murdering another. This brutality continued and was dramatically expanded as the Thatcher government attacked each section of organised labour. First the steel workers then telecommunications and engineering workers culminating in paramilitary occupation of mining communities and pit villages throughout the miners’ strike (1984-1985). During that time all forms of political and grass roots organisation were smashed. These defeats were significantly reinforced by new anti-trade union laws and public order acts which made political resistance that much more difficult.

2000-2008 – The Revival of Illusions 

However after a period of anti-Labourism in the 1990s the idea of the parliamentary road to socialism was revived by Marxist parties in the new century as a way of maintaining political influence in the community and later the trade unions.  These projects, such as Socialist Alliance, RESPECT and the Scottish Socialist Party and its various splinters – such as those lead by G. Galloway MP (RESPECT) and T. Sheridan – none of them were able to achieve basic reforms or lead an opposition within parliament to the states new anti?working class laws. 

The Party The State and Social Democracy

I have concentrated on the aspect of recent history of Marxist parties and their continued political orientation on Social Democracy as they each have tried to renew their fortunes via the parliamentary road as this was an continues to be an important cause of their decline. For what we have seen over the last thirty years is the not so strange death of the ability of Social Democracy to reform. 

The state during those years increased its power as an instrument of class warfare both legally and (para) militarily. Today very little remains of the Marxist parties mentioned above. In terms of revolutionary influence there is even less. The revolutionary party is of course more essential than ever in any recovery of the lost ground of those years. How can it be rebuilt and its effectiveness be rejuvenated?

Resisting State Repression

The question how can the revolutionary party be rebuilt cannot be divorced from the question:  How can socialist’s best defend workers rights?

First it is essential that the actual conditions we are operating in be recognised. Second, future political, predicable trends must be anticipated to help focus political work:

  • The anti-trade union laws must be abolished. This includes the states current legal right to block solidarity action and capital’s legal right to destroy workers organisation by impounding or sequestrating union funds. No specifically focused legal campaign against the anti?trade union laws and public order acts like those mounted by civil rights lawyers against the SUS laws and miscarriages of justice will succeed with out political strikes and occupations against these unjust laws.
  • Strong opposition to the government equality quango. These bodies have been the most insidious political block and ideological weapon of reactionary Social Democracy. In the last twenty five years since they were established by the Thatcher Government, government quangos have produced nothing except a huge dung pile, comprising of reports, research and consultation compost, eagerly consumed and recycled by the over?paid self?appointed dung beetles. Their job was to promote equality and fairness and they have presided over largest increases in state inequality in eighty years; in education where there has been a dramatic increase in deprivation and financial burden on students, in racial discrimination and outright racism within the police and army which are now being continually exposed by the media and not by the equality industry. In health, where doctors and hospital managers are paid more than three times what nurses and ancillary staff are paid – which has not lead to an increase in efficiency but a dramatic increase in management negligence leading to unnecessary deaths. And last but not least the financial sector where the regulators and organisations such as the Financial Services Commission have overseen not a ‘share owing democracy’ but the class war of share dumping hypocrisy.  Soon the board mass of the working population who are being financially ruined will be joining the pensioners on streets to protest at the loss of their savings, pensions and livelihoods.

The War of Position

Capitalist states are now all over the world attempting a holding operation. There are two possible outcomes (1) The state is successful in warding off a political crisis (2) The holding operation fails and a ‘war of position’ between classes ensues. It is clear from the recent US election that a New Deal mark II is being proposed by one section of the American ruling class as an answer to the crisis of capital. It has much more limited chance of success than New Deal mark I as it was a world war that performed the duel task of destroying US capitals’ rivals and boosting US production (war with China is unlikely as it holds most of US national debt). This will mean a revival of New Deal ideology and conditions or as one socialist recently put it ‘a subsistence existence to sap your resistance’.   In time this too will give rise to a ‘war of position’ as a smaller and smaller number of the ever more fantastically rich demand and receive more and more support from the state while the working population receive less and less as the cost of living rockets as wages and employment slump.


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