The fight for a new workers’ party and unity on the left – Chapter 1
Why workers need a party
3rd May 2005
“In its struggle for power, the proletariat
has no other weapon but organisation.”
Over the last few years one of the most persistent topics of discussion on the Irish left has been that of socialist unity. Many activists have come to the conclusion that the actually existing left is inadequate for the tasks it is confronted with, and a new formation is necessary. Most recently, three prominent militants on the Dublin left have issued an open letter(1) calling for a New Left alternative. This marks a new stage in discussions which have flowed from the campaign against the bin tax.
Socialist Democracy takes a sympathetic attitude towards these discussions, and we put forward this article as a contribution to the debate. The article is not a formal policy statement of Socialist Democracy, but an attempt to use the Marxist method to illuminate important questions facing the socialist movement. While we do not pretend to have the last word on the issue, we hope militants will consider our views and they can help inform further debate.
We will aim to look at the kind of organisation the working class needs and the role the left could play in advancing towards it. Secondarily, we will need to examine and criticise the ideas and actions of sections of the left. In particular, this article will enter into a dialogue with the ideas of the Socialist Party. However, while these criticisms will sometimes be harsh, they are not meant in a spirit of sectarian denunciation but rather in the hope that militants can progress by learning from the failure of past initiatives.
Part 1 – Why we need a workers’ party
The need for a workers’ party arises from what should be a basic principle of Marxism, that the working class needs to be involved in politics on its own account. This appears as early as the Communist Manifesto, where Marx and Engels assert that “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”(2) This point is reiterated numerous times in Marx and Engels’ writings, and borne out by their record of political activity.
This position forms a long-running thread in the Marxist tradition going back to Marx and Engels’ involvement in setting up the First International in 1864, a body which was not even formally socialist but was a significant step towards working-class self-organisation. In Britain, Marx and Engels kept their distance from the sectarian “Marxists” of the Social Democratic Federation, while Engels welcomed the formation of the Independent Labour Party on the grounds that a genuine movement of the workers, which could be won to socialism, was more valuable than a hardened sect that was incapable of appealing to workers(3). What was fundamental was a considerable layer of workers breaking from their previous support for the capitalist Liberal Party, and the potential of that movement. While political principles were vitally important(4) the task for socialists was to fight for those principles within the movement.
Leon Trotsky’s writings in the 1930s on the need for a Labour Party in the USA drew on the same arguments. He took this seriously enough to make it a centrepiece of discussions with his US comrades around the 1938 Transitional Programme. Trotsky’s concern here was not for building a simon-pure Trotskyist sect but for building a genuine party of the working class. “The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority to organise the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, to the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot immediately say to the masses, you must join our party.”(5) The tasks of Marxists were to advocate the labour party in itself, but also to fight for it to have a principled revolutionary programme.
In fact, we believe that in an epoch of capitalist crisis, and we still live in such a period, any new party of the working class would need to equip itself with revolutionary politics sooner rather than later. The potentially revolutionary logic of such a new party was central to Trotsky’s analysis. But the operative strategy for the new party was outlined by American communist leader Jim Cannon: “We want no Communist labor party, for such a party will become a small group separated from the masses. A real mass labor party based on the trade unions, and not restricted to Communists, will be a great step forward, and in forming such a party we can learn from the experiences of the past two years. Such a labor party must be (1) a mass organization; (2) based on the trade unions; (3) a general labor movement in which the Communists can work, but in which they will not lose their identity… We must reach the masses and set them into motion in the class struggle. Our means for doing this is united front struggles on the basis of the concrete immediate problems of the workers.”(6)
It is the objective demands of the class struggle, and the need for workers to have a political expression of their own, that informs our position. As Cannon’s quote demonstrates, it was the real experience over the previous two years that bore heavily on his prognosis for how a new workers’ party should be built. New militant trade unions had been created in the US in the nineteen thirties and it was on these workers that soe hope of a new party could be based. Today the trade unions are older and more decrepit with handfuls of workers attending branch meetings. We do not therefore say that the process of building a new working class party must necessarily go through today’s trade unions. In Germany for example it was the trade unions that were the creation of the party. But if the working class needs its own party what of the argument that it already has one? A look at the British situation can clarify some of the arguments and issues.
The decline of social democracy
For decades, social democratic parties such as the Labour Party in Britain and the SPD in Germany have been seen by the working class as their representatives. In some countries this has been called into question by a decline in the votes for and membership of the traditional reformist parties and an attenuation of their organic links to the working class. This has led some on the socialist left, most consistently the Socialist Party and its associated international current, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), to draw the conclusion that social democracy is historically finished.
There is some evidence to support this theory of decline. While Labour Party membership in Britain stood at over 400,000 at the 1997 election, in July 2004 the official figure stood at 208,000 and is believed still to be falling. The number of active members is much smaller, and election turnout has plummeted in many of Labour’s traditional strongholds. The RMT transport union has been expelled and the Fire Brigades’ Union has disaffiliated.
The German SPD has lost fewer members – from 775,000 in 1998 to 640,000 in 2004 – but since its narrow general election victory in 2002 it has suffered a string of defeats in local and state elections, its current poll rating is 29% compared to 38.5% at the 2002 elections, and it has recently hived off a leftwing split. The 22 May regional election in the key state of North Rhine-Westphalia could see a further humiliation.
So, at the very least, we can say that in several important countries large social democratic parties are in organisational decline, and there is a general tendency in the current period for reformist leaders – whether Blair in Britain, Schröder in Germany, Lula in Brazil or Bhattacharya in West Bengal – to embrace neoliberalism and austerity(7). While the evidence for the former is patchy – the SPD’s recent defeats can be set against the victories of its Spanish and Portuguese counterparts – the latter is more general, and calls into question the extent to which social democracy can be a vehicle for working-class aspirations.
As the Socialist Party is the current on the left which has produced the most worked-out position on this issue, it is worth examining its arguments in some depth. This is not merely of academic interest, but provides us with an opportunity to address the issue of Labour decline and to make relevant comments. The SP’s analysis is also somewhat distinctive in that it argues that social democratic parties all over the world are definitively finished. To look at the merits of its case, it will first be necessary to look briefly at the SP’s history, to make its position clearer and set it in context.
A brief history of Militant
In their previous incarnations as the Revolutionary Socialist League, publicly known as the Militant tendency, the precursors of the SP spent decades as proud members of the British Labour Party, pretending they did not even exist as a distinct organisation. Labour was, Militant declared, the “mass party of the working class” and those left groups outside it were “anti-Marxist sects”.(8) This attitude was duly exported to every group in Militant’s international current – so the Irish Labour Party was also described as the “mass party of the working class”, something it has never remotely been. The policy reached its reductio ad absurdum in the North of Ireland, where Militant pretended to be a faction of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) for twenty years after that party had collapsed.(9)
What were the origins of the “deep entry” policy?(10) In the early 1950s, after the collapse of the British Trotskyist movement, Militant founder Ted Grant found himself isolated with a tiny group of acolytes. For want of anything better to do, the Grant group drifted into the Labour Party. Over the long years they became very comfortable there, with Labour entry being elevated from a contingent tactic to a permanent strategy, and their politics developed to fit their situation. Grant developed a coherent political doctrine that was a long way removed from the politics of Lenin and Trotsky, but bore a startling resemblance to pre-1914 Social Democracy, the politics of Karl Kautsky and the Russian Mensheviks. The reformist gradualism, the passive propagandism, the constitutionalism and British patriotism that came to be Militant’s trademarks and still characterise the SP today were developed in this period.(11)
Grant’s most significant innovation was in his depiction of the Labour Party. Lenin had described Labour as a “bourgeois workers’ party”, by which he meant it was bourgeois in its politics but rested on the support of workers – in fact, Labour’s function in capitalist politics was to reconcile workers to capitalism. Grant either misunderstood or misrepresented Lenin as meaning that Labour was somehow half bourgeois and half proletarian – in essence, it was a healthy workers’ party with a bad bourgeois leadership.(12) The task ahead was to reclaim Labour’s socialist soul. Grant also systematically effaced the difference between a reformist and revolutionary party, spinning the fantasy that a Militant-led Labour government could legislate socialism through parliament. So revolutionary politics was recast as a kind of turbo-charged reformism, and the revolution was reduced to a parliamentary majority nationalising the top 200 monopolies. Some of this may originally have been play-acting to safeguard Militant from the Labour bureaucracy, but through the years the mask became the face.
Another Grant innovation was his bowdlerisation of Trotsky’s concept of the transitional programme, a political method deriving originally from the Communist Manifesto and seeking to link everyday struggles to the struggle for workers’ power. The transitional programme was an attempt to overcome the division of the socialist programme into a minimum one, which was fought for but which never went beyond reforming aspects of the system, and the maximum which, was for socialism or revolution, but was never fought for and was for speeches by leaders on a Sunday. The transitional approach started from the needs and struggles of workers and attempted to raise programmatic demands that would meet their needs and point them to the conquest of political power. It was concerned to raise workers’ consciousness to a political level that made them understand the need for them to conquer political power.
Militant, on the contrary, developed something very similar to the maximum/minimum programme of the old Social Democracy, only with the maximum demands being kept secret, and the minimum (reform) programme published in the “What we stand for” column of Militant every week having value only as a gambit to attract people to an organisation with a secret Marxist doctrine. It was therefore argued that reformist demands became transitional because the people putting them forward were secretly revolutionaries!
This political method, together with Grant’s insistence on remaining within Labour at all costs, led to a whole series of concessions to the bureaucracy above and beyond what was necessary for survival. So as early as 1954 Grant abstained in his East Islington constituency party when two Trotskyists, members of Gerry Healy’s group were expelled. During the 1984-85 miners’ strike Militant echoed Kinnock’s call for a ballot, and opposed the launching of mass pickets into Nottinghamshire.(13) And, while the tendency had built its strength in Liverpool in opposition to the right-wing Braddock machine, the Hatton regime turned out to be little more than another exercise in municipal boss politics.(14)
Yet in 1991 the majority of Militant, led by Grant’s long-time lieutenant Peter Taaffe, ditched the “deep entry” perspective and decided to strike out on their own, expelling Grant and the diehard entrists in the process. Since then Militant, renamed the Socialist Party, have, with the zeal of a reformed drunk, proclaimed the death of social democracy – not just in Britain, but all over the world – taken a hysterically anti-Labour line and have called every five minutes for a “new mass workers’ party”.
How did this come about? The original “open turn” as it was called was carried out on pragmatic and somewhat confused grounds. A combination of circumstances – working-class defeats, the rightward shift of the labour movement, expulsions of Militant members from Labour, Militant’s leading role in the poll tax revolt, a subterranean power struggle between the ambitious Taaffe and the elderly Grant – led Taaffe and his followers to believe that the grass was greener on the outside. This then had to be retrospectively justified, and Militant created the theory that social democracy was dead as a vehicle for the working class, and – because Militant never admitted mistakes – that this had occurred in the recent past.
Has Labour changed?
Much of the SP’s case rests on a historical sleight of hand. So Taaffe argues against Grant: “Grant argued that the internal position of the Labour Party had not fundamentally changed: ‘In the 1950s, the internal regime was marked by witch-hunts against the Bevanite left, bans and proscriptions, the repeated closure of the Labour youth organisation’. However, we stressed that the Labour Party of the 1990s was far to the right than that of the 1950s. While attacks had been made on the left in the earlier period, the right had never succeeded in completely destroying the left within the constituencies… Through Kinnock, however, then through Smith and now through Blair the Labour Party’s internal democracy, particularly in the local parties, has been well-nigh destroyed. That process has been taken much further in the 1990s.” Taaffe therefore argues that “the Labour Party had become a barren and futile arena of activity”.(15)
But Grant is essentially correct when he writes that bureaucratic expulsions are nothing new. In the 1920s and 1930s the Labour leadership carried out repeated mass purges of Communist Party sympathisers, closing down dozens of constituency parties. Kinnock’s witch-hunt of Militant pales in comparison – while Militant had perhaps 10,000 members at its peak, only 250 had been expelled at the time of the break in 1991. The break with Labour was by no means forced on Militant, but was a conscious decision.
Again, Christine Thomas of the SP writes of the alleged influence that the rank and file used to have in Labour: “In 1978, for example, a supporter of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) from Liverpool Wavertree constituency Labour Party, moved a resolution at the Labour Party conference, rejecting the 5% pay limit which the Labour government had imposed on workers. Delegates voted in favour of the resolution, decisively breaking Labour’s ‘social contract’ with the unions and paving the way for a huge wave of industrial struggles.”(16) Historically this is somewhat dubious – in fact the Social Contract was broken when union members began to fight back, and not by a Militant exercise in “resolutionary socialism”. But Labour leaders have rarely paid much heed to conference votes, either ignoring resolutions they didn’t like or stopping them being put forward in the first place. Blair’s bureaucratism differs from that of Attlee, Gaitskell or Kinnock only in being more efficient because the working class had already suffered defeats.
Thomas also argues that “The class background of individual Labour Party members has significantly changed. A survey carried out in 1999 found that 64% of members were white-collar professionals and just 15% working class.” Thomas gives no source for this claim, but Seyd and Whiteley’s definitive 1992 study gives a figure of 26% “working class” and 49% “salariat”.(17) The thing to bear in mind is that Seyd and Whiteley use “working class” in a sociological sense to mean manual workers, while their “salariat” includes not only managers but, the numerically dominant group, white-collar workers, many of them materially no better off than manual workers. They concluded that around two thirds of Labour’s membership was made up of public sector workers.
This should not be surprising, as Labour’s membership, and especially its active membership, has always been somewhat more middle-class than its voting base. This is not a new phenomenon – indeed, in the 1980s the traditional Labour right was stronger amongst manual working-class members and the Labour left, except for the Scargillite miners, tended to be more white-collar. This even extended to the self-consciously proletarian Militant, whose sole trade union stronghold was among the social security clerks of the CPSA. Anecdotal evidence does suggest that the Labour membership, particularly the activist base, has become somewhat more middle-class under Blair. But there has not been a sudden dramatic break where an essentially working-class membership disappeared and was replaced by petty-bourgeois careerists – rather, the shift in the class makeup of the Labour membership has been incremental, partial and a continuation of previous trends.
What we are left with, then, is a series of subjective and impressionistic observations to the effect that “workers don’t identify with Labour” or “workers are fed up with Blair’s right wing policies”. The SP do manage to point to signs of Labour’s relative decline, but when we put these into a long-term historical framework we see that there is little new here, that reformism was in decline even when the CWI current was still working within it on an international scale, hence their inability to point to how and when social democracy moved out of the working class movement in toto. Indeed, the SP’s case begins to look very like a circular argument that Labour is dead because they say it is.
This approach is of course not unique to the SP, they simply have the merit of trying to theorise their position. The reflex dismissal of Labour so widespread on the left these days has the common theme of being subjective and often moralistic. Much of it centres around the personality of Blair. Another common argument is that the invasion of Iraq is a betrayal too far. But these are subjective impressions – as Labour has supported, and indeed prosecuted, imperialist war after imperialist war since 1914, what makes the Iraq war special? How does torture in Iraq under Blair differ from torture in Aden under Wilson? In 1982, Labour could not even bring itself to oppose Thatcher’s comic opera war in the Falkland Islands.(18) Why then should Iraq put Labour outside the working-class movement?
On the contrary, while Labour retains its ties to the trade unions, albeit that those ties have been attenuated over time and the unions are heavily bureaucratised, the working class retains some interest in it. This is not so much a question of formal affiliation – the German unions are not affiliated to the SPD and have not been affiliated since 1933 – but of the party’s functional operation. Thomas fails to see this, arguing that since the union block vote at Labour conferences has been reduced, the working-class influence over the party has been reduced accordingly. Therefore, Thomas argues, union funding to Labour is no different in principle to AFL-CIO unions in the United States funding the Democrats. But there is a crucial difference – while organised labour is part of the Democrats’ traditional constituency, the party does not rest primarily on the support of the working class. The American situation could be compared the old Liberal Party in Britain, which included workers as one constituency among several, and not an especially important one. Moreover, the US Democrats, like the British Liberals, have never claimed to be a workers’ party and have never been seen as such even by their supporters. While social democracy has been decaying into liberalism for decades, and Blair is ideologically committed to accelerating that process, it is premature to say that the process has been completed.
Is the party over?
The Labour Party in Britain has been in existence for over 100 years and the German SPD for several decades longer than that. We should be very wary of writing the obituaries of these organisations, not least because they have appeared to be at death’s door before. There is a striking example in the Labour government of 1929-31. Where Blair has embraced neoliberalism and globalisation, Ramsay MacDonald was equally fervent in his defence of free trade and the gold standard, the equivalents of the time. The outcome is well known. In 1931 MacDonald and a large portion of the Labour leadership defected to the Tories and in the subsequent election Labour were reduced from 288 seats to 52. It seemed then that Labour was at the end of the road. Yet within a few years the party was revitalised, reclaiming its electoral base and expanding its membership.
More recently, in France the Socialist Party was reduced to a rump in the 1993 parliamentary elections following the betrayals of the Mitterrand years. In 1997 it rebounded to become the governing party. Then in the 2002 presidential election it was beaten into third place by the fascist Le Pen, and resoundingly defeated in the ensuing parliamentary election. Last year the Socialist-Communist-Green coalition swept the regional elections. Anybody predicting the imminent death of the French Socialist Party would have been confounded time and again.
Marxists could do worse than to revisit the debates in the early Communist International around the policy of the united front. While the ultraleftists argued that social democracy had proven its bankruptcy by collapsing into social patriotism in 1914, Lenin put a much more subtle and sensible argument. While social democracy was no longer historically progressive, he argued, that didn’t mean it had run out of perspectives. Workers would continue to look to their traditional organisations in the absence of an alternative.
This is where Lenin’s concept of the dual character of the “capitalist workers’ party” is relevant. In an epoch of capitalist crisis, reformism is no longer viable as a strategic option. But reforms are not ruled out, although they will have to be fought for from below, and the other function of social democracy – policing the working class – is as relevant as ever. “Reformism without reforms”, to use Tony Cliff’s phrase, does not mean the definitive end of reformist politics.
Let us put the problem concretely. We can predict that at some point there will be a revival in class struggle, and a layer of militant workers will seek a political vehicle. Ted Grant argues that they will inevitably turn to their traditional political organisations, that is social democracy. Peter Taaffe, and his followers in the Irish SP, argue that they inevitably won’t. We reject the idea of historical inevitability. A new layer of militants in Dublin, for example, would be at least as likely to gravitate to Labour or Sinn Féin as the far left. They would of course find those parties to be inadequate vehicles, but that doesn’t rule out that workers would turn to them, at least initially. We put forward a workers’ party as what the class objectively needs, while recognising that this will be a focus for political struggle.
Why is Labour in decline?
We believe that the decline of social democracy has to be set in context. British Labour’s rightward evolution is a function of working-class defeat. One would get the impression, from reading the left press, that Tony Blair woke up one morning, decided to abolish Clause 4 and embrace neoliberalism, and the Labour membership followed him like automatons. But Blairism is only a continuation and deepening of Kinnock’s “New Realism”, which itself forms a continuum with the introduction of a Thatcherite austerity programme by the Callaghan government in 1976.
What has changed is that virtually all the pressure on Labour is coming from the capitalist class with very little countervailing pressure from the working class. Labour leaders in the early 1980s had a militant and undefeated working class to deal with, and shop floor militancy gave confidence and not a little clout to socialists in the Labour Party. Kinnock and Blair’s drive rightwards followed on from Thatcher’s defeat of the miners, steelworkers, printworkers and other important sectors of the class. Indeed, the betrayal of MacDonald followed hard on the defeat of the 1926 General Strike. And as we pointed out in our book Prisoners of Social Partnership, partnership was imposed on Irish workers after the failure of free collective bargaining and ICTU’s campaign against the PAYE burden on workers.
It is workers’ real experience of defeat that leads to demoralisation and the feeling that there is no alternative, not the embrace of neoliberal nostrums by leaders like Blair and Schröder. So the decline of social democracy derives not from the psychology of treacherous leaders but from the course of the class struggle. Of course these defeats are to a very large extent due to the failure of reformism and the trade union bureaucracy, and therefore it is futile to seek to build a new reformist party. In contrast to the Socialist Party, who envisage a new left-reformist party with themselves as the Marxist minority, we believe a revolutionary workers’ party is what the working class requires.
Programme is crucial here, and is all the more crucial for initiatives of the left lacking any mass forces. We would certainly not reject out of hand a party that did not initially have a revolutionary programme, but we would actively seek to win it to such a programme.
What kind of party?
It is important to point out that we are not setting down as a precondition that any new party should have a complete revolutionary programme. It is simply that a new party, if it is to be a serious project, will have to agree on what it is and what it wants to do. Our concept of a programme is not an idol to be worshipped, but a guide to action. John Percy of the Australian DSP puts it well: “A Marxist program is a real, living programme, developed and tested in practice. It’s not some holy scripture. Too many groups claiming to be revolutionary have been unable to make this third step, developing a real program rather than the ‘correct program-ism’ that results in Byzantine splits and the multitude of little groups.”(19)
We fight for a revolutionary programme for the same reason that we favour a workers’ party, that we stand on the principle of working-class independence. It is not true that workers can get by without a programme – it’s just that, if they lack a programme of their own, they will inevitably adopt the ideas of bourgeois politics. If the class does not arm itself with Marxist politics, it cannot consistently fight for its own interests, but only develop a piecemeal approach which will end up back at a reformist position. A new party would have to be founded on a political agreement about its purpose. Of course there are different levels of agreement. A regroupment of small left groups would need a more comprehensive programme than a layer of workers moving into action. However, even a party that arose spontaneously from the class struggle – the Brazilian PT is a good example – would eventually be confronted with hard decisions and a programmatic struggle would be critical to the outcome.
But is a new party needed at all? It is possible, indeed likely, that workers beginning to move into militancy would turn first to their traditional organisations, and would only move to create a new vehicle once they had been convinced of the inadequacy of those organisations. For example, workers would need to learn from experience the limitations of official trade unionism before building rank-and-file networks. Similarly in the political sphere, it is far from impossible that workers would look first to Sinn Féin or the Labour Party, before even thinking about building a new party.
However, the best workers would very soon discover the inability of those parties to operate as instruments for class struggle. While both have a passive mass support, far in excess of the small socialist organisations, neither is a mass party – Labour has an individual membership of around 3500, SF probably has a somewhat larger membership but not qualitatively so. More importantly, the ideological and organisational base of both parties precludes them moving to class-struggle politics. Labour, even disregarding the embrace of neoliberalism by Pat Rabbitte, has never in the past gone beyond the political bounds set by the ICTU bureaucracy, while any new militancy would have to oppose the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, SF, although its electorate and activist base in Dublin is overwhelmingly working-class, has based its expansion in the South on the clientelist method and pragmatic populist ideology pioneered by Fianna Fáil in years past. Moreover, SF as a party is defined by its position in the North, where it has quite clearly sought to establish itself as imperialism’s junior partner and when in government privatised furiously. Neither of these parties offers a way forward in terms of independent working-class politics.(20)
We would therefore favour a new workers’ party in principle. In fact we would argue that a workers’ party rather than left unity should be the strategic goal of socialists. The distinction is important, and it flows from both the objective needs of the working class and the approach of the founders of Marxism. Workers’ unity is dictated by the needs of the class struggle, while left unity as a goal springs from the subjective desire of left militants to function more effectively as part of a single organisation. This is a perfectly understandable position, but a workers’ party does not necessarily follow from a project of left regroupment – indeed, a concentration on left unity can become a sectarian obstacle.
Practically, it hardly needs to be
said that the existing Irish left – tiny, divided and with very meagre
links to the working class – is not in a position to create a new workers’
party. Even if all the left groups came together tomorrow and proclaimed
such a party, the only thing they could create would be a sectarian caricature,
and one that was so politically unstable it would be extremely short-lived.
But, while the left cannot create a new workers’ party, there are modest
steps it could take that would not only aid militants in the short term,
but could also pave the way for a new party.
(1) See Socialist Worker, 26 March
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