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The fight for a new workers’ party and unity on the left – Chapter 2
The International Experience

Andrew Johnson

3rd May 2005

The long-term decline of social democracy and its move to the right has led to initiatives for new parties in various countries. The Irish left has tended to interpret these movements in terms of its own politics – so the Socialist Workers’ Party argues that “Such alliance building and radical left unity is happening across the world – Respect in England, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Left Block in Portugal, P-SOL in Brazil. Why should we be any different here in Ireland?”(1)  Likewise, the SP fits the various movements into its perspective of new mass workers’ parties.

A more subtle approach is taken by SWP (GB) theoretician Alex Callinicos, who puts forward the idea of “three models” – the coalition of the revolutionary groups Lutte Ouvrière and the LCR in France; the “pluralistic coalition” Respect in England and Wales; and a “middle way” apparently represented by the Scottish Socialist Party.(2)  In fact Callinicos’ article offers no conclusions except the Panglossian one that all these things are good, but Respect is best of all.

Where do the new parties come from?

The various new parties held up as examples for the Irish left to follow are, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. In France, for example, there is no new party, but the two revolutionary groups LCR and LO, which occasionally form electoral alliances. But none of these groups has emerged from nowhere. Many have been formed by regroupments of the existing far left – for example the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, Red Electoral Alliance in Norway and the Left Bloc in Portugal were all founded by various small far-left groups coming together. Importantly, they all came together on the basis of an agreed programme – the strengths and weaknesses of their programmes would be another argument, but they were all founded on a political agreement.

The other source of new parties has been in leftward splits from social democracy. The great exemplar here is Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, which represents the left wing of the old Euro-Stalinist PCI plus the residue of the Italian far left gathered in Democrazia Proletaria. There is the P-SOL (Party of Socialism and Liberty) founded recently in Brazil by expelled members of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), most notably the popular PT senator Heloísa Helena, a militant of the Fourth International. In Germany former SPD members have formed the Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice, or WASG), which will have its first electoral test in North Rhine-Westphalia later this month. Finally, the Scottish Socialist Party is a peculiar hybrid, being historically a localised split from the Labour Party, but formed under the leadership of the former Scottish Militant Labour.

Some caution needs to be exercised when discussing the split parties, because in Ireland they have tended to be seen somewhat uncritically. In fact, we have seen left splits from reformism many times before. The left socialist parties in Norway and Denmark (the SV and SF respectively) have long since become social democrats in all but name, and who even on the Irish left remembers the Socialist Labour Party? Italy had three very large organisations to the left of social democracy and Stalinism in the 1970s but these have now disappeared. The political trajectory of today’s groups is also uncertain. 

Currently Rifondazione is tacking right with the aim of joining a coalition government with the reformists it split from, while the WASG, led by old bureaucrats with a long record of betrayal, is cracking down on the revolutionaries who have joined it and seeking to prove its anti-communist credentials by refusing any joint work with the ex-Stalinist PDS. More importantly, both preserve the old social democratic distinction between the “economic” (industrial activity) and the “political” (electoral politics). P-SOL and the SSP appear more hopeful, although the SSP is experiencing strong nationalist and reformist pressures, while P-SOL leader João Machado, speaking at the European Social Forum, was noticeably more modest about the new party than the exaggerated claims the European left has made for it.

In fact it is doubtful whether or not a pattern can be found. The organisations shoehorned together by the Irish left as examples are so diverse that they don’t fit anything like as neatly as our socialists would like them to. Two general points should be made, however. The first is that the most successful of the new parties have been those which have rooted themselves in the working class and taken a leading role in genuine struggles.

The second point is that all these movements have been forged in political struggle. We shouldn’t have to point this out, but too many Irish, and indeed British, leftists believe that you can achieve unity by not talking about genuine political differences. The trouble is that political differences have a habit of arising, and they should be dealt with openly. One of the more successful parties in Europe has been the Red-Green Alliance (RGA) in Denmark. The RGA did not achieve its political cohesion by diplomacy, but in a fierce struggle between its component parts, mainly the old Communist Party and the Trotskyist SAP, which led to a major split in the Communist Party. When issues of principle are in contention, it is better to fight them out than leave them to fester.

Brazil – the failed experiment

It is ironic that so many left militants internationally are hailing the formation of the new Brazilian party P-SOL as if it represents something new. This is not to dismiss P-SOL out of hand – we do not have enough information to definitively characterise P-SOL and in any case we would be very wary about reaching any firm conclusions about a party that has only been in existence for a few months. But the emergence of P-SOL cannot be understood without reference to the degeneration of the party it arose from, the PT. We have dealt with Brazil extensively elsewhere(3), but it is worth reiterating some of the key points of the Brazilian experience.

The PT is important because for many years it was hailed as the great exemplar, the new model for building parties which transcended the traditional categories of Marxism. The PT was formed in 1980, explicitly in opposition to the heavily bureaucratised trade unions and the right-wing Communist Parties. Its leader was the charismatic Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who had been imprisoned twice in the 1970s while president of the ABC Metalworkers’ Union. To the extent that the party had an ideology, it was a “workerist” one that considered the PT to be the authentic expression of the aspirations of Brazil’s workers, urban poor and landless peasants.

The attraction of the PT to the international left can hardly be overstated. It was a self-proclaimed socialist party that was winning mass influence at a time when most left formations internationally were in retreat. Even after Lula’s defeat in the rigged 1989 presidential election, the party did not repudiate its historic socialist programme. It appeared not to be a social democratic party – in fact, it was strenuously opposed by Brazil’s official Social Democrats – and had no links with Stalinism. As it had never held office in central government, it had no serious record of betrayals. And it had a tradition of party democracy that meant expulsions of leftists were rare.(4) 

The PT’s professed politics were neither reformist nor revolutionary. In the Marxist tradition, parties that vacillate between these positions have been described as centrist. Centrism is usually a relatively brief transitional phase as a revolutionary party moves right or a reformist party moves left. But the peculiar history of the PT, as a party that arose organically from the class struggle and for many years was not faced by the dilemmas of government, meant that it remained undifferentiated for a long time. This led to an actual endorsement of the PT’s centrism by much of the international left, as for instance in the schemas floated by the French LCR for an “anti-capitalist” or “class struggle” party. What these analyses neglected was that a centrist party must inevitably choose between reform and revolution in the end.

The reckoning came with the 2002 presidential election, as Lula stood poised for power. The PT’s historic programme was unceremoniously junked for a studiously “moderate” programme designed not to frighten Brazilian capital and the IMF. This “moderation” was symbolised by the choice of textile magnate José Alencar, a leader of the right-wing Liberal Party, as Lula’s running mate. Since his election, Lula has not only continued the policies of the openly neoliberal Cardoso government, but has actually been rolling back social programmes Cardoso had never dared to attack. This is not even reformism – under the restrictions capital imposes on the semi-colonial countries, a reformist programme is simply not possible. And party democracy has proven to be an unnecessary luxury as leftist parliamentarians, the founders of the P-SOL, were expelled for voting against a pensions law that actually violated PT policy. What was most distressing was the lack of fight from most of the PT left, including the powerful Democracia Socialista tendency, which had collapsed into barely critical support for Lula.

What this demonstrates is that what much of the international left thought was a wonderful new paradigm turned out to be something very familiar. We can see that the distinction between reform and revolution is not outmoded but remains crucial today. Above all this puts a heavy responsibility on Marxists, as the rightward evolution of the PT should not be seen as inevitable. We need to assimilate the lessons of the PT experience, whether in assessing P-SOL, which doesn’t have to be a PT Mark Two, or in building a new party closer to home.

A Scottish model?

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has become a touchstone for many on the Irish left as either a negative example to be avoided (for the SP) or a positive example to be emulated if possible (for most others). It is therefore important to set the SSP in context and look at its development.

As mentioned above, the SSP has its roots in a de facto split in the Glasgow Labour Party, and particularly in the expulsion of a layer of Militant supporters during the poll tax struggle. This group, centred around the charismatic figure of imprisoned poll tax resister Tommy Sheridan, challenged the rightwing local Labour Party electorally under the banner Scottish Militant Labour (SML) and had some initial success, with Sheridan polling an impressive 19% in the depressed Pollok constituency in the April 1992 general election and following that a month later by being elected with three comrades to Glasgow City Council. A firm local base was built, although, even after launching the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) as an electoral front in 1996, SML had serious difficulties in extending its reach outside Glasgow. While its results were quite respectable, they were a long way short of the prediction by the SML leadership in 1991 that “the demise of left reformism and Stalinism has opened up, for the present, a gaping vacuum, enabling the forces of Marxism [Militant code for itself] to play a leading role in events as they unfold in Britain.”

More recently, with the SSA’s conversion into the SSP, the party has greatly expanded its base and, while still a long way from being the “mass force for socialism in Scotland” mooted by SSP leader Alan McCombes at the time of the SSP’s launch, it has become a party with a real echo in the working class. Sheridan was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and in the 2003 elections was joined by five other MSPs, establishing a small but significant presence for the party in many parts of Scotland where its support had been just a blip in 1999.

The SSP has been somewhat less successful in terms of building an activist base. While it has a paper membership of around 3000, a significant number in a small country like Scotland, only a minority of members are active, and the activist base is still predominantly composed of the “platforms” which constitute the far-left organisations within the SSP. It is also worth pointing out that the active membership of the SSP is smaller than the Scottish membership of Militant alone in the 1980s, which itself was smaller and less deeply rooted than the Communist Party in the 1970s. The formation of the SSP represents not a rising working class, but a left coming together to find something constructive to do in the context of a largely passive and defeated working class.

This is not of course to say that the SSP, a party with a young and growing membership, could not rise to equal the social weight enjoyed by the Communist Party in the past – it already has a level of electoral support not seen on the Scottish left since Willie Gallacher of the CPGB lost his West Fife seat in 1950. In its 1991 document “Scotland: Perspectives and tasks”, the SML leadership explicitly drew a parallel between Militant’s leading role in the poll tax struggle and the growth experienced by the CP following the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. What the comrades failed to point out was that the CP’s achievements were built on a basis of clearly reformist politics – indeed, one of the striking features of student politics at the time was that the Young Communist League stood far to the right of the Labour Party Young Socialists! While the SSP is obviously not to be compared politically to Blair’s New Labour, it is far from immune to reformist pressures.

The general rightward drift of the SSP is seen most clearly in its adaptation to Scottish nationalism. Ironically, SML had, in accordance with Militant’s unionist traditions, pledged itself to oppose nationalism: “it is the SNP which will be the main beneficiary of the inevitable disillusionment with the Labour government… It is nationalism which will pose the greatest danger for the labour movement in the future… The formation of an open organisation of Marxism could act as a powerful pole of attraction to SNP supporters, and even members, who are not dyed-in-the-wool nationalists, but who see in the SNP the only real, organised alternative to Labour. This would be particularly the case with the youth… It is the development of a powerful Marxist movement in Scotland, with a fighting revolutionary programme and a sensitive policy on the national question which will act as a counter-weight to the appeal of nationalism.”(5) 

In retreat from this position the party adapted to this ex-Labour milieu attracted to the Scottish National Party, and adopted a position of “socialist independence” – an unfortunate echo of “socialism in one country”, underlined by the SSP’s increasingly warm approach to Cuba. There were a number of justifications put forward for this – the idea of a “progressive consensus” in Scotland, in contrast to a supposedly more right-wing population in England; the idea that the advocacy of independence was tied to a vision of “another Scotland”, broadly defined as a leftist position; and an exaggerated view of the importance of breaking up the British state. But these arguments tended to have a life of their own, and the distinction between the struggle for socialism and the advocacy of independence has been either elided or outright denied by the SSP. This drift towards nationalism has been epitomised by the adoption of the Independence Convention as a strategic way forward, with independence being held to be a progressive demand in itself.(6)  And the slide from socialism to socialist independence to independence has a practical corollary, with leading members of the SSP openly mooting a coalition with the SNP. As early as 2000 Sheridan said, “The SNP, I think, will gain and Labour will lose, the Liberal Democrats will lose. You might have the SNP then looking to form an administration with some of the smaller parties. If that happened, then our demand would be that our redistributive policies are on the agenda. That’s a price the SNP would have to pay. Whether they’d be willing to pay it, I don’t know, but we wouldn’t be easy negotiators. We’re not after power for power’s sake.”(7)  So cutting a deal with the bourgeois nationalists is not a question of principle, but only of the price.

It would be a mistake to characterise the SSP as a finished reformist party – it is still evolving and any such characterisation would be premature. Moreover, there are other factors to take into account: the SSP has a democratic structure and culture that allows members to fight for more principled positions, and a large base that makes such a struggle worthwhile. However, there are clear tendencies towards a national-reformist position, and the pressures in that direction have only intensified as the party has grown. This poses serious problems for the future of the SSP, and in particular for the dominant ISM platform (the former SML majority).(8)  The SSP also fudges the difference between revolutionary and reformist politics. It is only fair to point out that these issues are openly debated within the SSP and the party is far in advance of any left formation existing in Ireland, but we should not take it as a pristine model to be uncritically emulated. 

England – from Socialist Alliance to Respect

The recent history of the English left also has an immediate relevance for Ireland, not least because both the SP and SWP have a history of following a line laid down by their parent group. In fact, the SWP’s recent advocacy of left unity and the SP’s rejection of it are intimately linked to the activities of their British comrades.

The Socialist Alliance was originally developed in the mid-1990s as an initiative of what is now the Socialist Party, then known as Militant Labour. Militant promoted the Network of Socialist Alliances on a pragmatic basis, linking up their local strongholds such as Coventry and Lewisham with other areas where ex-Labour lefts were contesting elections. In 2000-2001 the Alliance appeared to have some dynamism – the SWP joined it, immediately giving it a much bigger activist base.  The Alliance stood a full slate in the 2000 London Assembly elections and a large number of candidates in the 2001 general election, polling reasonable if unspectacular results; and there were moves towards turning the Alliance from a loose network into a cohesive organisation.

Then it all began to fall apart. The SP staged a walk-out over alleged SWP domination and, in a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, turned a slim SWP majority into a large majority and simultaneously boosted the more boorish sectarian elements in the SWP. There were well-founded allegations of SWP maladministration. Then the SWP decided to throw all its resources into the anti-war movement and the SA was put into cold storage, only to be finally killed off earlier this year.

It is important to point out that the fundamental reason for the failure of the SA was not the antics of the SWP or SP, although the SWP did eventually kill it. The SA failed because it never agreed what it was for. Based on a prediction that there would be an exodus from the Labour left, this alliance, composed 95% of revolutionaries, restricted itself to a very mild reformist programme. The exodus never materialised. And, while former SA militants have justly complained that the SWP kept SA speakers off anti-war platforms, they may well have failed to make an impact anyway if they had nothing very different to say.

The failure of the SA demonstrates the fallacy of the “vacuum on the left” theory championed for decades by the SWP and more recently by the SP. This theory posits a static and passive constituency to the left of social democracy which simply has to be appealed to. This inevitably leads Marxists into not only an electoralist strategy, but a strategy based on occupying a reformist space that the Blairites have abandoned. Therefore the revolutionaries end up putting forward a programme to the right of the old reformist politics!

Another fundamental problem with the vacuum theory is that workers do not live in a vacuum but have been pulled either to the right or to demoralisation and apathy. This is why there was no serious exodus of the Labour left to the SA – the socialists defeated inside Labour were precisely that, defeated. The decline of Labourism has led to a more general decline in left politics. In Wales, for instance, Labour used to be so monolithically dominant that the Stalinist CPGB was the only other party with any working-class following. Nowadays Welsh Labour is so decrepit the National Assembly has had to institute a scheme to bribe councillors to retire, while the once powerful CP has disappeared altogether. Has the far left filled the vacuum? No, the far left is weaker in Wales than in any other nation in Western Europe. The SWP should have known better, because ten years ago they ran a “leave the Labour Party” campaign. But those who left Labour then did not join the SWP, they simply went home.

The replacement for the SA is what is officially known as “Respect – the Unity Coalition (George Galloway)”. Callinicos describes Respect as a coming together of four forces – the SWP, the trade union “awkward squad”, Muslim activists and an ex-Labour left “symbolised” by the expelled MP George Galloway. One fears Alex is being a little disingenuous – there are very few trade union lefts in Respect and the ex-Labour element “symbolised” by Galloway largely consists of Galloway himself.

The most controversial elements of Respect have been the SWP’s coalition partners, Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), and the political compromises involved in keeping them on board. Galloway, for one, was never part of the Labour left – always refusing to join the Campaign Group of left MPs – and, with his penchant for making policy on the hoof, his own personal prejudices – opposition to abortion, support for immigration controls, or a British nationalist defence of the UK state – effectively become Respect policy. It is symptomatic that SWP leader Lindsey German, who has written extensively on women’s oppression, should now describe the defence of abortion rights as a “shibboleth”. The SWP can only maintain their bloc with Galloway by suppressing the very real principles of their own members.

The MAB, and elements associated with them, also pose problems for the SWP. Most basically, they oppose class struggle as disruptive of the Ummah (the community of Muslims, where all believers are allegedly equal). They seek to bind together the disparate Muslim ethnic communities in Britain into a single British Muslim Community, something which does not yet exist. The SWP have got around this for the time being by making Respect a single-issue anti-war party, essentially a UKIP of the left, and by making the specious claim that Islam is an oppressed religion in Britain. This allows them to appeal to Bengali workers in East London not as workers but as Muslims – so Galloway’s leaflet in the Euro-elections described Respect as a “party for Muslims”. By contrast, the CPGB in the 1930s won support from East End Jews by appealing to them as workers and socialists, and in fact in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Jewish clergy. Nowhere was that clearer than at the Battle of Cable Street, when local rabbis refused to support militant opposition to Mosley’s fascists.

To be sure, some lip service is paid to class struggle but lip service just makes opportunism more dishonest. SWP Central Committee member John Rees argues, “Our vote was not just a Muslim vote. There is a massive political battle going on among Muslims, just as there is in the trade unions and other groups. Muslims have a class identity as well as a religious identity. Now we have to build on the success we’ve had to generalise from it. Activists should ask, can I go to my workplace, the local mosque or Sikh temple, the community centre, and set up a political meeting? The doors are open to us but we have to take the small steps necessary.”(9)  While class certainly plays a role amongst ethnic communities – East End Bangladeshis’ long-term support for Labour draws heavily on that community’s experience of poverty and racism – the sociological makeup of Asian communities in Britain’s inner cities means that mosques or gurdwaras are unlikely sites for class struggle. The councils of mosques are theoretically elected but, as with Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland, the elders are heavily drawn from local business communities who have no vested interest in class struggle except to oppose it. And this is before we even come to the adherents of political Islam, who oppose class struggle on ideological grounds, to say nothing of their stances on women, gays and Jews.(10) 

In short, Respect is a dead end. It shows the depth of betrayal of socialist principles, of even democratic principles, that result from an emphasis on electoral success.  While it is an attempt to give political expression to the massive anti-war sentiment in Britain, the coalition represents not the strengths but the weaknesses of the anti-war movement. Its populist and communalist politics offer no alternative, and its inherent instability means it cannot long survive in its present form. “Success” in the general election – narrowly defined as getting Galloway elected in Bethnal Green – would only postpone the inevitable reckoning. In no sense can it offer a model for the future of the Irish left.


(1)  Rory Hearne, “The most important task facing the social movements in Ireland is the formation of a real left alternative”, Socialist Worker, 26 March 2005.
(2)  Alex Callinicos, “The European radical left tested electorally”, International Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin No. 5, July 2004. See also the response by Murray Smith, “The European elections and the anti-capitalist left”, 29 July 2004.
(3)  Paul Flannigan, “Lula, Brazil and the future of the left” (2004).
(4)  Except for the “Morenista” PSTU, expelled in the early 1990s for violating party rules that banned tendencies from having their own public press.
(5)  Scottish Militant Labour document, “Scotland: Perspectives and tasks”, April 1991.
(6)  See Gregor Gall, “Socialism, the ‘national question’ and the Independence Convention in Scotland” (2004). This pamphlet also gives references to other contributions to the independence debate in the SSP.
(7)  In The Observer, 13 August 2000.
(8)  The ISM, to their credit, recognise this and are openly debating the way forward for them as a specifically Marxist platform. See for example Nick McKerrell, “Marxism and the SSP in 2005”, Frontline No. 16, and other articles in this journal.
(9)  Quoted in Socialist Worker (Britain), 19 June 2004.
(10)  See in particular Rumy Husan, “How the left should work with Muslims”, October 2003, and “‘Islamophobia’ and electoral pacts with Muslim groups”, July 2003.



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