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Tim Nelson and Paris Thompson: Left Unity and the need for a broad party

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Few active on the left in Britain will not have noticed the Left Unity project developing over the last few months. Ken Loach’s call for a new party to the left of Labour has gained over 8,000 signatories. Local groups are being set up across the country, with large meetings full of activists from a variety of campaigns, unions and traditions.

This is exciting not simply because of the buzz it is creating, but also because it’s an objective necessity to realign the left. Left Unity represents the best opportunity for this in a long time and should be treated with the seriousness it deserves. In this article we will attempt firstly to establish why in the current period left realignment is not just desirable but of fundamental importance, and also why it is a real possibility. We will then attempt to establish what role the revolutionary left can play in this, what positions it should take, and why its role is significant.

Our position is that left realignment has become a priority as a result of two factors: The failure of Labour, particularly its parliamentary wing, to provide any real opposition to austerity and the coalition government, and the continued weaknesses of the left outside of Labour, which have led to many of the weaknesses of extra-parliamentary resistance, and the lack of a left alternative to Labour on the ballot paper. Furthermore, it is our contention that it is the primary task of revolutionaries in the current period to contribute to the rallying of forces against austerity, and a united left organisation could play a central role in this.

The Labour Party: neoliberalism and the crisis of social democracy

The Labour Party is fundamentally failing to provide leadership in the fight against austerity. Not only is the Labour Party leadership in broad agreement with the Tories and Liberal Democrats about the need for more cuts, Ed Miliband has gone so far as refusing to rule out continuing with the bedroom tax if he gains power. We have recently witnessed rightward shifts in rhetoric in regard to immigration, and all manner of Blairite zombies emerging to urge Labour further to the right.

This is not to say that from some quarters within the Labour Party opposition has not emerged. The Labour left were arguably the most active force in building the recent anti-bedroom tax protests. The most prominent Labour left trade unionist, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, has in many cases involved the union in some important anti-austerity activity. However, these forces are still weaker than they have been for many years, and the role of the Labour Party, particularly its leadership, since the Tories came to power has been one of capitulation, vacillation and weakness.

For many, this may not be much of a surprise, particularly after years of right-wing Labour governments – governments of privatisation, imperialism and economic crisis. Marxists argue that the Labour Party is a typical social democratic organisation. Lenin referred to it as a “capitalist workers’ party”. Its base, in terms of membership and voters, is overwhelmingly working class. It continues to have the affiliation, and active participation, of much of the trade union movement. Its programme, and leadership, is capitalist.

This contradiction has meant that, historically, the Labour Party has contained within it various tendencies, two of which are of real significance. The Labour Party has been viewed by some as a vehicle which can be used to alleviate the excesses of capitalism, and represent working class interests within the capitalist system. This tendency does not aim to fundamentally alter the system, but simply manage capitalism better. Others have seen it as a vehicle through which we can fundamentally change the system and bring about socialism through parliament. The Labour Party was founded by the trade union bureaucracy, and remains its political expression. Both these tendencies have historically been represented within the bureaucracy, and found their expression in the Labour Party.

What we have witnessed, from the late 1970s onwards, has been a fundamental shift in the balance of forces within the Labour Party as a result of the defeats of the working class and the implementation of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, and its attack dogs the Thatcherites, sought to reverse the gains made by the working class after 1945, first by smashing the power of the unions, and then rolling back nationalisation and dismantling the welfare state. The attacks we are seeing currently are the latest stage of a process that began in the 1970s. In the course of these attacks, the reformist socialist wing of the Labour Party has been dramatically reduced, as its base in militant trade unionism and ‘municipal socialism’ was destroyed. The right of Labour has therefore become dominant. Although Labour remains a workers’ party, in that its base remains primarily working class, its leadership not only accepted the ‘inevitability’ of neoliberalism, but under Blair and Brown adopted its economic programme wholesale. In opposition, we have seen some, very small, moves to re-establish the Labour left, but the legacy of New Labour remains deeply ingrained.

As mentioned above, the Labour Party is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. All the features of the current Labour leadership – its acceptance of the logic of neoliberalism, its cutting and privatising economic programme, its refusal to give expression to the wishes of those workers who want to fight back – can be found in the leadership of our unions. As Marxists we believe in the uniting of the political and the economic struggles, with primacy given to the former. The lack of a political expression of the desire to resist capitalism is a major weakness which must be rectified. What is needed is a class struggle organisation – a party that not only gives political expression to those wanting to resist capitalism, but also serves as an instrument in this struggle.

The far left in Britain

The left outside of the Labour Party has historically been extremely weak in Britain. Arguably the only organisation worthy of the title of ‘party’ which has grown outside of Labour has been the Communist Party, and even that compared to its sister organisations in Europe was small. The left outside of Labour largely suffered the same fate as that within it during the onslaught of the 1980s. By the 1990s the Communist Party had for all intents and purposes disappeared. Most Trotskyist organisations had disintegrated into small, isolated sects.

Arguably the only organisation to emerge out of the 1980s with anything resembling the numbers it went into it with was the Socialist Workers Party. The Socialist Party, a rump which left the Labour Party after the destruction of the Militant Tendency, remained. Few others on the revolutionary left survived. They have since experienced 20 years without growth. A large part of this can be put down to objective factors – the historic low level of militancy within the working class, the legacy of the 1980s, and the continued implementation of neoliberalism. However, another important factor is subjective – the nature of these organisations, and how they relate to the movement and the class.

Despite the historic low levels of militancy since the 1980s, particularly in the industrial struggle, there have been a number of ‘spikes’ in resistance, most notably in the anti-poll tax movement in 1989-90 and the anti-war movement in 2003-7. Both these movements were led by small revolutionary parties who, despite their size, were able to mobilise and organise millions of people in mass protest movements. However, despite playing such a central role, the far left failed to grow out of either of these movements. We can see the same pattern once again in the current period. Although resistance to austerity has not been nearly as strong in Britain as we would wish, there have been strikes, riots, student protests and occupations, and a whole range of anti-cuts protests, direct action and public occupations. Not only has the left failed to grow out of these struggles, far left organisations are actually in a state of crisis.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party, the left outside Labour has been dominated in Britain by small Trotskyist organisations. These have increasingly been marked by a number of fundamental problems, which have recurred for the left for some time – sectarianism, dogmatism and substitutionism. Again, these problems can, for a large part, be explained by objective factors. The defeats of the 1980s meant that many on the left were isolated, and not engaged with much of the working class. They were left to keep the movement together through a long period of low levels of struggle, and it is unsurprising that they slipped into routinism. This was particularly likely to inflict problems on the revolutionary left, who needed to keep Marxist ideas alive. In such an environment, infighting and splits were inevitable, as was an overreliance on dogma, which when it came to organisational questions would translate into a fetishisation of particular models. However, while these shortcomings may be accentuated by the low level of struggle, there is an underlying problem – the traditional Trotskyist model of organisation as a whole.

Trotskyist organisations since 1945 have been marked by all the problems indicated above, so it would be incorrect to explain them away as symptoms of the effects of neoliberalism on the movement. Trotskyist parties and sects have tended towards a top-down model of organisation, with authoritarian power structures and hierarchies. These have been supported by a version of ‘Leninism’, which is a legacy of distortions which began when Zinoviev, and later Stalin, implemented a bureaucratisation of the Communist parties in the 1920s and 1930s, strangling democracy. Although the Trotskyists opposed much of these changes, when they established their own organisations they repeated many of the same mistakes. This was partly due to their attempts to defend themselves as the ‘orthodox’ Leninists, and partly because the shift towards an authoritarian party structure began in Russia during the civil war, led by Trotsky as much as anyone. The roots of this party model aside, the problems that it has are a serious drawback, and hinder the growth of the revolutionary left in the current period.

There is a growing tendency towards anti-authoritarianism on the left in Britain. This sometimes translates into the autonomist forms of ideology we have come across in Occupy and the student movement, but is often nothing more than a rejection of the top-down structures which have been dominant on the left for decades. There is also an increased rejection of sectarianism and exasperation with the far left for its seeming inability to work together without denunciations, splits and petty intrigue. What is needed is an attempt to build a new form of organisation, which doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of the past. We need an inclusive, pluralistic party of the left, which is democratic and built from the bottom up.

The need for a broad party of the left

There have, of course, been previous attempts to build a united left-wing party. However, these have tended either to be dominated by one particular organisation, or have been alliances of already existing far left groups. They have tended, therefore, to paper over the problems that exist on the left, rather than solve them.

In order to get past the old mistakes and differences, we need a clear idea about what we want to achieve, and then agree a common method on how we will get there. As socialists, we can be united in the aim of building a mass socialist organisation. The main problem with existing far left parties is that they believe that they can achieve this in the abstract, that they can, in isolation from the working class, formulate a plan of action, through use of their one ‘correct’ and ‘pure’ theory, and simply deliver this to the movement. In other words, they see the need for a mass socialist party, but see their own particular sect, which is the only true manifestation of the socialist tradition, as the mass socialist party in embryo. Such a method has demonstrably failed, time and again. No truly mass socialist party has been built in this way.

Most Trotskyists argue that, while we need to unite in practice with all sections of the movement, when it comes to the party, we need to separate reformists from revolutionaries. This comes from an interpretation of history which points to the split between revolutionaries and social democrats during the First World War, and suggests that the failure of clear demarcation led to opportunist, pro-capitalist elements becoming dominant. They also point to periods of time when there is the genuine potential for revolutionary change, such as Germany in 1918-19 and Spain in 1936, when the failure of revolutionaries to split with reformists led to absolute defeat. While on the face of it these arguments may make sense, they have translated into a sectarian approach to socialist organisation, and a complete misinterpretation of how, historically, mass revolutionary parties have been built.

It is very rare that small, isolated revolutionary socialist sects have, through incremental gains, or applying their ready-made programme to a movement, have emerged as a mass party. Historically, they have emerged as a result of the most advanced sections of the class organising together in resistance to capitalism, and hardening into a revolutionary perspective in the course of the struggle. The Bolshevik party did not, as is often argued by dogmatic ‘Leninists’, get built as a result of a split with the Mensheviks over what the definition of a member should be, but was in actual fact built during the mass strikes and barricade fights of 1905 and 1917. Previous to these periods the RSDLP largely remained united. Similarly, the Communist parties in Germany and Italy grew out of united organisations with the reformists, and split only when the question of revolution or reform became not just an abstract debate but a concrete reality. A revolutionary party is not the vanguard of the class by virtue of its ideas, but instead revolutionaries aim to relate to the vanguard of the class, namely its most advanced, conscious elements, and unite them in a common organisation.

This is not to say that the question of revolution or reform is a moot point. When engaged in struggle this seemingly abstract question translates into concrete issues on a day to day basis, but the task of revolutionaries is to win those sections of the class engaged in struggle to revolutionary methods and ideas, not through abstract propaganda, or by somehow manoeuvring themselves into leading positions in the movement, but by uniting with them in common organisations with common objectives, and winning them to a revolutionary programme through argument, and by demonstrating the validity of their ideas through application. A broad party of the left, uniting all those who wish to confront the capitalist system, and bring about the socialist transformation of society, has the potential to provide the vehicle for this.

The role of revolutionaries in Left Unity

The Left Unity project, in our opinion, has the potential to play the role of a broad, class struggle party. It is very far from being the finished product of course, and it is not at all guaranteed to become such an organisation. However, it is the role of serious revolutionary socialists not to simply stand aside and see how it develops, but to engage with it from the beginning and make every effort to make it a success.

It is the latest in a long line of projects aimed at uniting the divided British left. It differs from previous attempts in that it is neither an uneasy alliance of existing groups nor a front for one particular organisation. It is, instead, an attempt to unite as many people on the left as possible through individual membership on a democratic basis with a common programme. This does not mean there will not be tensions. There will of course be divisions between those who wish to pursue a reformist agenda, and those who are revolutionaries. The role of revolutionary socialists is to articulate a clear strategy within the organisation that shows the necessity of taking it in a radical direction and confronting capital, as opposed to tailing Labour and the trade union bureaucracy. There will hopefully be many people who engage with Left Unity who can be won to such a strategy, and therefore be exposed to revolutionary ideas.

Revolutionaries have in the past found it difficult to engage in such projects. They have either, for fear of division, fudged the distinction between reform and revolution, almost pretending to be reformists, or they have stood aside from the project maintaining their revolutionary purity through isolation. Neither method has any hope of winning wider layers of workers to a revolutionary programme. It is important that revolutionary socialists engage with Left Unity in a genuine and honest manner, refusing to hide disagreements, and endeavouring to make it a militant class struggle organisation, which takes a lead in everything from strikes and occupations to anti-cuts campaigns and bedroom tax protests.

In a genuinely democratic, pluralistic organisation disagreements will always occur, and the test for Left Unity, and for revolutionaries involved in it, will come when concrete policy decisions have to be made. Revolutionaries should attempt to be the ones who are always arguing for the most radical actions, and win the majority of the organisation to such ideas. What decisions are taken, how they are taken, and how the argument is dealt with define a democratic party, and the politics of those who participate within it. Revolutionaries need to argue openly and honestly within the party while maintaining that disagreements should be able to exist within one organisation. This is particularly important as revolutionaries should expect to be in a minority for the foreseeable future – as is the case in the most advanced sections of the working class in all periods except objectively revolutionary situations.

The IS Network will not be the only revolutionaries working within Left Unity. Other small revolutionary groups such as Socialist Resistance and the Anticapitalist Initiative are already actively involved, and others are likely to engage. Furthermore, many individuals not aligned to any particular group who are, or will be, active within Left Unity will have revolutionary ideas.

Just as uniting the wider left is of fundamental importance at the moment, so is bringing about realignment of the revolutionary left. This cannot, and will not, be brought about abstract ‘mergers’ of isolated groups, but by uniting together around common objectives through joint activity. Again, Left Unity provides an opportunity to do this. The IS Network should strive to be at the fore of developing joint work alongside others to fight for a revolutionary strategy for Left Unity.

Our aims and objectives

The IS Network should continue to actively participate in Left Unity with an aim to build from the bottom up a genuine mass socialist party, uniting as many different people from a variety of different perspectives and traditions as possible. We should fight for the greatest level of democracy within the organisation, recognising that while as revolutionaries we may be a minority in any broad, pluralistic organisation, it is only through open and honest discussion and consistent application of democratic procedure that people can, or should, be won to revolutionary ideas. We should fight, at every opportunity, for radical action, and win people to the need to confront capitalism and the state.

Our aim should be to transform Left Unity into a genuine class struggle organisation. We should develop a revolutionary programme to which we aim to win as many people as possible, to bring about, through common activity within Left Unity, cooperation between revolutionaries to achieve these goals. We need to reject in the strongest possible terms any attempts to hijack Left Unity by one or another existing far left organisation, and refuse to tolerate a return to the sectarian divisions and petty intrigues which have plagued the left for decades. At the same time we should welcome people from all traditions and organisations who look to engage with Left Unity and genuinely aim to contribute to building a united left.

The IS Network is made up of people who, like many on the left, are tired of artificial divisions and sectarian squabbles. We wish to move beyond the petty arguments of the past, and will strive to contribute to the building of a united, democratic party of the left. We hope to build a mass party capable of actively participating in the struggle against austerity, confronting the government, and bringing about real change that will benefit the working class in Britain. We need a party of class struggle. The need for such a party has never been so great, and it is the duty of every socialist to do their part to make this a reality.