By John Percy
This article aims to look at the experience of the “broad party” tactic or strategy as implemented by revolutionary socialists internationally over recent decades. In Australia we’ve just witnessed one particularly disastrous application of this tactic that became a strategy, resulting in the dissolution of the DSP [Democratic Socialist Perspective, previously Democratic Socialist Party].
There have been “broad parties” aplenty in the past claiming to represent workers, or broader classes, or “progress” in general — parties that are sometimes mass, mostly with electoral ambitions, but with programs that are social democratic, or left liberal, sometimes “all-inclusive”, but non-Leninist and non-Marxist.
Such parties are not able to bring about fundamental social change; they cannot break the state power of the capitalist class. For that we need a revolution. A revolutionary party is necessary to carry that out — a Leninist party, a politically homogeneous cadre party.
The program of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which used to be the program of the Democratic Socialist Party, is very clear on this question:
“The working class cannot as a whole or spontaneously acquire the political class-consciousness necessary to prepare and guide its struggle for socialism. For this, it is indispensable to develop a party uniting all who are struggling against the abuses and injustices of capitalism and who have developed a socialist consciousness and commitment to carrying out revolutionary political activity irrespective of the conjunctural ebbs and flows of the mass movement … ultimately, only a revolutionary socialist party that has deep roots in the working class, that is composed primarily of workers, and that enjoys the respect and confidence of the workers, can lead the oppressed and exploited masses in overthrowing the political and economic power of capital. The central aim of the Revolutionary Socialist Party is to build such a mass revolutionary socialist party in Australia.” (Program of the RSP/DSP, pp. 63-66.)
But the DSP has now ditched this program, and dissolved itself into the Socialist Alliance “broad party”, with a non-revolutionary program.
Special pleading for ‘broad parties’
Such broad parties can and do develop, outside the initiative of revolutionaries. Then it’s just a normal, standard, tactical question as to what approach revolutionaries should have towards such a party. Sometimes it’s correct to intervene, sometimes it’s not.
Of special interest to us, however, is when revolutionary Marxists elevate such broad parties to a special case, thinking that they might be the replacement somehow for revolutionary parties, or that revolutionaries have to create such broad parties if they don’t exist, or dissolve their forces permanently into such parties.
This is what has been happening in the last 15 years or so among the Marxist left in advanced capitalist countries, so that it has become an issue in itself: the “broad party” question. It’s been taken up by a number of Trotskyist currents, certainly the Fourth International, which unfortunately generalised the tactic and developed an overall strategy of “building anti-capitalist parties” in Europe.
It hasn’t just come out of the blue. It’s related to both a crisis of political perspective caused by defeats, for example the final collapse of the Soviet Union, and also to a misestimation of upsurge, for example exaggerated hopes for the anti-globalisation movement after Seattle.
The political context
The generalised push for “broad parties” is a consequence of the political period, which overall has been a period of retreats and defeats.
1. The last two decades have been very much under the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the final unwinding of the gains of the Russian Revolution. There were defeats in Eastern Europe; the Chinese Revolution was unravelling in a capitalist direction; Cuba’s economy suffered special problems. The old Communist parties were dwindling before; now they declined further.
2. This was a period of imperialist cockiness, bragging about the “end of history”. The bourgeoisie was increasingly confident and aggressive; neoliberalism was rampant. Many unions and workers’ organisations were weakened or even totally smashed by this onslaught. The social democratic leadership dominant in many countries demonstrated their utter uselessness, capitulating further, or even leading the neoliberal charge.
3. This period also saw the rise of the Greens. The Green parties’ politics varied. They represented a growing environmental consciousness, and often became the political vehicle that attracted people concerned on a range of left liberal issues. They soaked up some of the break from the more traditional “workers” parties, CPs, Social Democracy, Labor parties. They showed both the potential for “new parties” in this period and the limitations. Increasingly as they’ve consolidated, they’ve settled into more right-wing positions.
4. This has also been the period of impressive campaigns against globalisation around the world — from the Seattle demonstration through multiple demonstrations in Europe, and the World Social Forums initiated in Brazil and hosted in other countries also. These indicated a radicalisation of sorts, and for a while seemed a hopeful development, but politically these movements also exhibited a hostility or confusion about the need for building revolutionary parties, with the anti-party strictures of the World Social Forum, and NGOs and right-wing parties in control.
Our initial motivation for launching the Socialist Alliance in 2001 was that the tide had turned, that we were looking ahead to a period of upsurge from the end of the 1990s. Such a tactic was dependent on that upsurge, the possibility of newly radicalising forces to be won over. But the DSP leadership certainly, and possibly other parties who got snared by this tactic, expanding it into a permanent strategy, misjudged, and that temporary upsurge didn’t continue. From the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the class struggle in advanced capitalist countries (except France) was generally on the decline.
The reality is that the push for “broad parties”, certainly the push to consider them a permanent perspective, more than a temporary tactic, was actually a result of the political downturn. Because at bottom, it’s a political retreat from a revolutionary socialist perspective, a compromise, a settling down to the level of the “possible”.
The psychological pressures
So the phenomenon has clear political roots. But it’s also a psychological response to pressures:
· the difficulty of the actual political situation, with the revolutionary left weak and capitalism seemingly triumphant;
· the length of time many activists have spent battling away, without advances.
There are a number of options for individuals facing this psychological and political pressure:
A. One is to respond to the real situation, and have a flexible, tactical approach to the political difficulties, but always retaining your fundamental revolutionary socialist perspective. After all, the need to overthrow the rotten capitalist system has not diminished. It’s actually grown more acute: the environmental crisis is threatening life on the planet; capitalism itself has been shown to be a shaky edifice. We’d love to throw ourselves into an immediate struggle to smash the capitalist state, but tactical responses are obviously needed, given the small size of our own forces, the strength of the bourgeoisie, the dulled consciousness of the working class etc. We’re mostly just small propaganda groups, unable at this stage to mobilise the class, certainly a long way from any actual revolutionary action.
B. Or you can look for a panacea, an easier course, one that has some fig leaf of justification and puts aside the task of building a revolutionary organisation. This is easier because you don’t have to think for yourself, or examine your own actual situation in detail. Sometimes this can be portrayed as a short cut to the ultimate goal, although of course it isn’t.
C. Or you can settle in to a non-revolutionary perspective (sometimes still conning oneself or one’s members that at heart you’re still a revolutionary, but “conditions don’t allow it at the moment”).
The pressures on revolutionaries are certainly very strong, pushing towards that last option, adjusting to life as a non-revolutionary. The revolutionary left has had a big turnover in places like Australia over the decades. After decades of decline, downturn, difficulty for the revolutionary movement and for militant trade unionism, there’s a tendency to get used to very small rewards, very modest victories, certainly well short of significant struggles, let alone revolutions. You set your sights very low.
Even though you start off with option A, after a while you might find that revolutionary approach has been transformed into option C, making your peace, and often it has been mediated by B the panacea, or short cut, type of thinking. Revolutionaries in such circumstances will often (almost always) say they’re still for revolutions, but that it’s just not possible at the moment, or we need to build our forces in a non-revolutionary organisation first, or some other rationale. They’ll argue that they’re pursuing the “broad party” course for tactical, temporary reasons. Sometimes there can be real necessity, such as repression by the state. But sometimes it’s done for reasons of tiredness, and sometimes for opportunist reasons.
Crises following radicalisations
Over the 20th century you can trace very clear periods of radicalisation, interspersed with longer periods of decline or stagnation in the class struggle. It obviously varies from country to country and there are local developments that go against the general pattern, but I’d identify the following periods of upsurge and radicalisation in most advanced capitalist countries. (In the Third World of course there were different dynamics, with many countries undergoing their own anti-imperialist struggles or struggles for national liberation and independence.)
· The upsurge following World War I, very much inspired by the successful Bolshevik Revolution.
· A modest upsurge after the Great Depression, not an immediate response, but several years after the onset, as the workers movement recovered from the disaster.
· Following World War II, inspired by the defeat of fascism and the victory of the Red Army. This led to revolutionary opportunities in Europe, squandered by the Communist parties, but radicalisation in other countries too, before the onset of the Cold War.
· The ’60s radicalisation, sparked by the civil rights movement in the USA, and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. A youth and student radicalisation developed on political as well as social and cultural issues. A high point was the May-June 1968 revolutionary upsurge in France.
The 1960s and early ’70s radicalisation was exceptional, sparking thinking and activity and movements on a range of political issues. It gave birth to our party, and revived or inspired revolutionary parties in many countries.
But after the radicalisation and the initial growth, there was a downturn, often leading to a crisis in the new revolutionary groups. Some of the new revolutionaries looked for new alternatives; some groups were diverted by “short cuts.” Often there were quick departures from the left scene. Of course it was encouraged by a conscious capitalist counter-attack, the neoliberal offensive. The downturn and the difficulties were reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Building a revolutionary party became even harder in such countries, revolutionaries were even more isolated.
After such a long period of retreat, extended defeats and weakening of the working class, and a thrashing around looking for a way out of the doldrums, an unfortunate but frequent left response has been to get fixated on a particular tactic, to make it a permanent tactic. That converts the tactic into a strategy.
There are many tactics on the road to building a mass revolutionary party:
* Proclamations, running up the flag, straight propaganda. You can issue a manifesto, the Communist Manifesto, for example. You can bring out a paper, announcing your program.
* Unity, regroupments, splits and fusions with other political currents are an important tactic.
* Entry into another party, generally one with broader support, with the goal of winning away some of the base, reducing the isolation, linking up with radicalising workers.
* Concentration in industry, or particular industries, or campus, or particular communities or social sectors.
* United fronts, coalitions or blocs. Participating with other forces, in a broader unity, on a specific campaign, to participate in elections, or produce a newspaper, build a new party, on less than your revolutionary program.
One lesson is that we don’t rule any tactic out. Just as importantly, we’ve learned that it’s best not to get stuck on a particular tactic. Tactics can be implemented well or badly. Mistakes can be made, but usually can be corrected, if we just see it as a tactic. Once it’s elevated to a strategy, it’s harder to correct.
Tactics elevated to strategy
Even in the case of the Fourth International, where there’s not so much a central party leading the current, there’s a tendency to look for universal tactics. We saw it in the case of the entry tactic. It can be a useful tactic in some times and places, but it can get generalised and be persisted in for far too long. This is still an article of faith for a number of Trotskyist currents, but was a problem of the FI for decades. It was proposed by Trotsky in the difficult conditions of the 1930s, “the French turn”, and some Trotskyist groups applied it. In some cases, for example the small group in Australia, the tactic of entry into the Labor Party was not applied until the middle of World War II, when the motivations were somewhat different: the group had been banned, so public work was no longer possible. After the war, with the onset of the Cold War, further arguments for the entry tactic were developed by the secretary of the Fourth International, Michel Pablo, who argued for “deep entry”, for an extended period of entry. It proved disastrous for most of the Trotskyist groups.
For “our” generation of parties, coming from the ’60s radicalisation, around the campaign against the war in Vietnam, inspired by the May-June 1968 revolutionary upsurge in France, in Australia, the USA, Europe, the revolution was real. The Cuban revolution was recent. So was Vietnam. The entry strategy seemed anachronistic. The FI broke free of the entry “principle” in the ’60s and largely came to terms with it in that fertile internal debate in the ’70s. We had to overcome it in the early years of developing our party. Many didn’t.
But the majority of the FI got caught up on a tactic again. At their World Congress in 1969, they elevated the tactic of guerrilla warfare in Latin America (and elsewhere!) to a strategy. It proved a disaster for the FI, and took a long debate and faction struggle to turn around. There was a counterposition in the FI between the party-building perspective as we saw it in the Cannonist tradition, led by the US SWP, and the tactics elevated to a strategy in the European FI tradition.
The SWP correctly rejected the guerrilla warfare strategy, but then at the end of the ’70s fell for another tactic elevated to a strategy, the “turn to industry”. It was a wrong call, based on a misestimation of the political situation, a prognosis of impending industrial struggle and radicalisation. It became the strategy, the shibboleth (actually overlain with the fact that SWP leader Jack Barnes had a sinister international factional motive at the start — to “screw the Europeans” — and perhaps a sinister factional motivation towards his own party, to guarantee his control and dominance, wipe out any opposition.) But he was hoist on his own petard. He was trapped, and killed off the US SWP.
We carried out that turn, with some positive results and useful experiences, although of course there were costs too. When it became clear that the predicted working-class upsurge on which the turn was predicated was not occurring, we made adjustments, allowing us quickly to step up our political work among students and in the varied campaigns and movements. But the US SWP refused to face facts, persisted in its turn, even “deepening” it, rolling it out again and again. That’s not the only factor contributing to the degeneration of the US SWP, but it was a major contribution — the refusal to face facts, and all the political distortions that flowed from that. (See the report on the US SWP by Doug Lorimer to our January 3, 1984, National Committee meeting, published as the pamphlet The Making of a Sect.)
Now there’s another tactic-become-strategy debacle, the “broad party” strategy, which has destroyed the DSP, disoriented the FI and damaged or smashed a number of revolutionary parties around the world
Misapplying Marx and Lenin
Often those opting for the “broad party” strategy as a permanent retreat from a revolutionary perspective would still like to cling to some semblance of orthodoxy, claiming to be in the real tradition of Marx or Lenin, for example. And it’s possible to find in the statements and writings of Lenin and Marx quotations that can be applied to these retreats, as justifying them, but doing that is actually arguing for the opposite of what Marx and Lenin struggled for all their lives.
For example, there’s the quote from ‘Left Wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder about phrase-mongering and clowning. This has been constantly misused by Peter Boyle and was trotted out by Dave Riley yet again on a recent discussion on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity blog. The purpose of these quotes is to justify a retreat to a lower level of politics.
There’s a tendency to elevate the question of the mass base over the question of program and leadership, rather than comprehending the dialectically interlinked nature of the two. They come out with platitudes that appeal to liberals: “doing vs words” etc. They don’t understand, or deliberately forget, the actual experience of the Marxist movement, in Marx and Engels’ time, or Lenin’s.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Cannon on ‘broad parties’
Sometimes in debates among revolutionaries, those starting to move away from defending a revolutionary party perspective will tend to reject Lenin first, arguing that Leninism led to Stalinism (sometimes via “Zinovievism”), or that Russian conditions were very specific and the Bolshevik party model isn’t applicable in any other situations. Often in their retreat from revolution, they’ll argue for an organisational solution such as a “broad party”, an “all-inclusive party”, a “pluralist party” as the road to the masses, before admitting to themselves that such a party would necessarily have a non-revolutionary program, and that they’ve moved away from a revolutionary perspective.
Sometimes these comrades will try to make a case for “returning to the party-building approach of Marx and Engels”, but usually without any understanding of what Marx and Engels actually stood for. Throughout their lives Marx and Engels were very clear on the need for a specific working class party with a revolutionary program, rather than an all-inclusive party.
For example, in 1882 Engels gave his support to Guesde and the left-wing minority when they walked out of the French Workers Party, which split into a Guesdist and a “possibilist”, i.e., reformist, party. Engels described this separation of “incompatible elements” as “inevitable” and “good”.
“If, like the possibilists, you created a party without a program, which anyone can join, then it isn’t a party any more”, Engels argued. “To be for a moment in a minority with a correct program . . . is still better than to have a big but thereby almost nominal semblance of a following.”
False calls for left unity
The call for “left unity” has become a permanent rallying cry for some on this track.
In Australia, this comes from the gang who forced out all other groups from the Socialist Alliance, alienated most of the active independents, then expelled us. Hardly an advertisement for unity!
As for unity, broadness, at any cost, this is what Engels had to say, (in a letter to Bebel June 30, 1873):
“One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for ‘unity.’ Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot … For this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters.”
As for being satisfied with a less than revolutionary program, Marx and Engels were scathingly sarcastic in this letter (to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and others, September 1879, in response to an August 1879 article written by Karl Hochberg, Eduard Bernstein and Carl August Schramm) entitled “Retrospects on the Socialist Movement in Germany”. The target of their polemic advocated transforming the German Social-Democratic party from a revolutionary to a reformist program.
“Let no one misunderstand us”, they paraphrased; we don’t want “to relinquish our party and our programme but in our opinion we shall have enough to do for years to come if we concentrate our whole strength, our entire energies, on the attainment of certain immediate objectives which must in any case be won before there can be any thought of realising more ambitious aspirations.
“Then, too, the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and workers, who ‘are now scared off ... by ambitious demands’, will join us en masse.
“The program is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed — for some unspecified period. They accept it — not for themselves in their own lifetime but posthumously, as an heirloom for their children and their children’s children. “Meanwhile they devote their ‘whole strength and energies’ to all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie.”
And Engels again (to Bebel, October 28, 1882):
“Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one's life long against the alleged socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.”
And as Lenin wrote:
“Unity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists and opponents and distorters of Marxism.” (“Unity”, Put Pravdy No. 59, April 12, 1914)
Not ripe for a revolutionary party?
James P. Cannon noted the tendency of those retreating from the perspective of building a revolutionary party to try going back to Engels. In a letter to Vincent R Dunne, he wrote:
It seems that all the ex-revolutionists, reformed Trotskyists, backsliders and runaways are leaning on Engels. They didn’t get their impulse to capitulate from him; that originated in their own bones, and they are seeking corroboration from Engels after the fact.
They claim his support for their contention — the one thing they all agree on — that it is wrong to try to create a revolutionary party under the present conditions when the number of conscious revolutionists is so limited. This, they all say, is sectarian — not merely the policy and practice of such a party, but a small party’s claim of the right to exist, regardless of its aims and actions.
The Shachtmanites, as well as the Cochranites, refer to Engels on this point.
But when I enter the controversy around Engels’s letters, I am not going to limit myself to the question of sectarianism. The real issue, as it is evolving, is the attempt to use the authority of Engels to liquidate the conception of a party of socialists, based on a definite program — a party which under present conditions can only be a small one — in favor of some prospective “big” party, to be constructed some time in the future by some people whose names and addresses are unknown, as a result of further development of the spontaneous process. That is dead wrong because the very idea of a party — large or small — presupposes a program and therefore consciousness.
If one merely wants a “big” party, just to have a party, then any kind of a party will do; but nothing less than a Bolshevik party is good enough for war and revolution. That, I think, is the conclusive verdict of historical experience. Moreover, the construction of such a party cannot be postponed until everybody recognizes its necessity. The project has to be started by those who are ready, willing and able. That’s the way it was done in Russia, and nobody has yet discovered a better way. (From James P. Cannon to Vincent R. Dunne, “Engels on the American Question”, http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1955/canonengonam.htm.)
One theme of those arguing strongly for the “broad party” strategy is that we have to unite the existing left, therefore we can’t take decisions on historical questions, which are divisive. There’s some validity in this approach, certainly if you’re building a united front campaign. And often it’s important to stress what parties are actually doing today, their practice and their real program, rather than their origins, how they came to those views.
But if this thinking becomes standard, then out goes the whole idea of a political program, out goes any possibility of political education of any depth, out goes the possibility of real cadre development. That is what is happening with the DSP/SA.
The ‘broad party’ push internationally
In response to the general political conditions outlined above, the idea of the “broad party”, developing a broad anti-capitalist or anti-neoliberal party, was a tactic considered by Marxists in many advanced capitalist countries over the past decade or two. Where the workers movement and explicit Marxist parties were weak, it was seen as a tactic that could take advantage of changing circumstances, respond to upsurges and further expose the old misleaders of the workers movement.
This was certainly the case among the international left that we were most in contact with, especially the Fourth International. In Britain and Europe there’s been intense discussion and thinking out and testing of this tactic.
The DSP left the Fourth International in 1985-86, but even on leaving we stated our wish to maintain comradely collaboration with the FI and its component parties that wished to maintain comradely relations with us. After the first few years, their initial hostility about our departure died down and we were able to establish that sort of relationship. From the ’90s we often attended the FI’s World Congress or International Executive Committee meetings, and sometimes the congresses of some of their organisations. The FI, especially in Europe, where they were strongest, adopted the approach of attempting to build anti-capitalist parties, and many FI sections have had varied experiences with this tactic. For example, the FI’s 1995 World Congress adopted a document on “Building the International Today” with a perspective of regroupment and “mutation” of its historic basis. A document on the “Role and tasks of the Fourth International” stated:
“6. Building broad anti-capitalist proletarian parties:
(1) Our goal is to form proletarian parties that:
- are anticapitalist, internationalist, ecologist and feminist;
- are broad, pluralistic and representative;
- are deeply attached to the social question and steadfastly put forth the immediate demands and social aspirations of labour;
- express workers militancy, women’s desire for emancipation, the youth revolt and international solidarity, and take up the fight against all forms of injustice;
- base their strategy on the extra-parliamentary struggle and the self-activity and self-organisation of the proletariat and the oppressed; and
- take a clear stand for expropriation of capital and (democratic, self-managed) socialism.”
Their approach was described as follows in a report presented to the 15th World Congress of the Fourth International, which took place in Brussels in February 2003: “For almost ten years, the Fourth International has worked with other currents of the non-sectarian radical left, for a broad and pluralist anti-capitalist regrouping in order to beat the hegemony of the social-liberal left.” (International Viewpoint No. 349, report by François Vercammen, a member of the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International and of its Executive Bureau.)
The results have been quite varied, naturally very dependent on the particular political conditions and possibilities in each country. But the individual tactics have been interwoven with a desire to work out a European-wide approach, and the whole question of the increasing integration of capitalist Europe, and the question of building a European left party. Also there’s the pressure of the FI searching for a new meaning for the FI itself, and the danger that has beset the FI in the past, the tendency to convert a tactic into an overall strategy.
One of the negative sides of “internationals” such as the Fourth International, and the state capitalist IST led by the UK SWP, and the Committee for a Workers International led by the Socialist Party in Britain, is that there’s a tendency to generalise tactics. In the case of “internationals” directed by a mother party, often British in the case of Trotskyist internationals, usually the tactical changes that are determined on the basis of British conditions and experiences are generalised and applied to their offspring parties in other countries, often in quite different conditions and without taking proper account of the actual situation.
Warnings and dangers
My international report to the January 2001 DSP Congress recognised some of the negative sides of the renewal processes and the interest in broad, pluralist parties:
What sort of socialist renewal and regroupment is possible around the world? What sort of party is needed? Can it just be on a broad anti-capitalist basis? Or do we need revolutionary Marxist parties right away?
Perhaps it depends on each country. There are varied social circumstances, and very different political situations. Movements and parties are at different stages of development, and have different political heritages. We can’t be too prescriptive on this.
Some countries will need a broad, anti-capitalist regroupment, with the revolutionary Marxist forces just functioning as a current within the broader movement. Sometimes revolutionary Marxists will be able to lead the regroupment, as in the Scottish Socialist Party. Sometimes the revolutionaries will be in the minority. Sometimes there will be a variety of Marxist currents. Certainly there’s a need for a conscious anti-sectarian stance in order to succeed.
Also, it’s clear that we don’t need international factions, or the fake internationals with delusions of grandeur. We’ve experienced numerous actual negative effects of such internationals.
But the goal, the task, is to get to a revolutionary Marxist party, a Leninist, Bolshevik party. Without it, a revolution won’t succeed.
So we shouldn’t make a virtue, or necessity, out of a temporary, partial step or stage.
Similarly, we shouldn’t make a principle of a retreat, a lesser form of organisation that has to be accepted because of political and organisational weakness.
For example, the idea of the “pluralist left” that’s emerged in some places as the description of the virtuous types of parties, the only acceptable parties.
Certainly, we’re all for the right of tendency, the importance of discussion and debate. But unfortunately some have interpreted this to be the most important defining principle of a party, and made a principle of being anti-democratic centralism, anti-Leninist. They rule out a Leninist type party, in reaction to the crimes of Stalinism and to the narrow sectarianism of much of the Trotskyist movement.
This can lead to a slide to the right, a slide to a social democratic political position, and a retreat from the party-building project altogether.
The report pointed to some of the dangers of generalising the FI’s “anti-capitalist parties” approach: Will the “new mass anti-capitalist international” “be based on the NGOs? Or based on the youth activists, and parties?” Efforts towards an alliance of anti-capitalist parties are a step forward, but the “Fifth International” alliance of movements project will likely further weaken the building of Marxist parties. The report noted: “Some of the FI groups are now openly liquidationist, not just anti-Leninist, but not seeing the need for a party at all, transforming themselves into a left-wing ‘think-tank’ to serve the movements, as in Holland with the SAP [Socialistische Alternatieve Politiek]”. (“Renewing the International Socialist Movement — International Work of the DSP”, DSP Congress January 2001. By John Percy. Activist, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2001)
What have been the results of the “broad party” strategy? There have been some absolute disasters — in Brazil, Italy, Scotland. In some places, such as Portugal and Denmark, the revolutionary Marxists seem to have been able to handle the tactic sensibly. But in a number of places the strategy has been pursued to the detriment of building a revolutionary Marxist party. And one “successful” example that developed “mass” support became something very different from what their originators started out as.
The Dutch Socialist Party (“Tomato Party”) was founded in 1972 by Maoists, but long ago eliminated all traces of Marxism and minimised socialist ideology in order to project a broad appeal. It focused on local issues, and electoral support has gradually grown. Most of the far left groups have now joined the SP. But the party has no revolutionary socialist element left, and not much of socialism.
Doug Lorimer and I visited the SP in 1997 and were struck by the bland politics it projected, the minimal level of activism and the almost total absence of literature — pamphlets, books, a substantial newspaper or magazine. It was a political culture without education. It has a very bland web page.
Bryan Evans from the Canadian Socialist Project reported on the SP’s 2006 electoral success: “The Dutch SP is in an enviable and yet at the same time precarious political position. In 1991 the party began a turn toward a more ‘pragmatic’ political approach. It remained the most resolved and single voice of opposition to neoliberalism in the Netherlands. At the same time, while the critique of neoliberalism deepened and was popularized, the nature of the alternative became fuzzier. The party came to speak not of ‘socialism’ but rather ‘social ism’ — that is an emphasis on a more humane, perhaps humanist, perspective and political approach rather than class analysis and struggle. The SP no longer calls for significant nationalization of strategic sectors and no longer demands that the Netherlands withdraw from NATO. Even its symbolic demand that the quaint Dutch monarchy be abolished has disappeared. It may well and fairly be argued that the SP may well be contending to replace the discredited (for now) Labour party as the authentic voice of social democracy given that Labour has embraced neoliberal policy nostrums with enthusiasm when given the opportunity.” (“In from the Margins: The Dutch Socialist Party Sends an Earthquake through the Netherlands”, Relay, March 26, 2007.)
At the outset the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) was seen as a “broad party” project by revolutionaries who got involved, including the FI. The Brazilian FI forces were quite large and initially grew from their intervention in the PT. It might have seemed an anti-capitalist party at the start, led by former metalworker Lula, but in government it was very clearly implementing neoliberal policies, governing in the interests of the local ruling class and imperialism.
This led to a major split in the FI forces. The majority are still part of the PT government and going further to the right. The minority, led by Heloisa Helena, left the PT and with other groups formed a new coalition party, the Socialism and Freedom Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, P-SOL). This group itself has many contradictions, including the fact that the central leader Heloisa Helena supports “right to life” demonstrations. The majority have left the FI, continuing to go along with Lula’s neoliberal policies, taking ministerial posts, implementing austerity policies, attacking workers’ pensions.
This entry into a “broad party” resulted in the absorption and capitulation of the majority of the FI forces. The tactic became a strategy, with disastrous results. What tactic they should have pursued — quit the government, denounce Lula’s rightward evolution, quit the PT — is not for us to say, but it is clear that by staying allied with Lula they’re relinquishing their revolutionary principles.
It’s a big embarrassment for the FI, and they’ve recognised it as a disaster. British FI leader Dave Packer, for example, writes: “We should also learn the lessons from the crisis of our Brazilian section, its gradual regionalisation and decay inside the Workers’ Party (PT), its co-option into the local state in some regions with well paid jobs, and presently its continued participation in a neo-liberal bourgeois government”.
In Italy, the FI comrades in the Communist Refoundation Party (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, PRC) were probably silent for too long as the PRC went to the right, became part of Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition government, supporting the war in Afghanistan, supporting the expansion of the US base in Vicenza.
The PRC had been the regrouping of the left of the old CP, which had majority support among Italy’s workers. The PCI was a right-wing Communist party, and moved further to the right, abandoning even any profession of communism. The PRC regroupment had different currents, and allowed the involvement of the various revolutionary groups, including the Trotskyists. The Italian FI group Bandiera Rossa joined and was able to win more supporters around its caucus, Sinistra Critica (Critical Left). As part of the PRC, it elected one senator and one comrade in the lower house.
But as the Prodi government insisted on and speeded up its right-wing course, the PRC leadership of Fausto Bertinotti went along with it, and the comrades in Critical Left were slow to criticise and slow to break. Although it’s not the same scale of disaster as in Brazil, it’s still not a very positive example for the “broad party” strategy. The Italian working class is weaker, the left further divided and dwindling.
In Scotland the split and dramatic decline in electoral support suffered by the Scottish Socialist Party have been disastrous. Many on the left in Britain and around the world had been looking at the SSP experience with hope.
Phil Hearse put it like this in Links, May-Aug 2000: “In Scotland, where the relationship of forces is much more advanced than in the rest of Britain, intermediate steps towards the resolution of the question of the political representation of the working class are immediately possible. The SSP cannot immediately be a mass party, but it can have an echo in sections of the masses and be looked to as a real potential mass leadership by sections of the workers and youth.”
But now those possibilities have disappeared. Tommy Sheridan and the SWP and CWI split away to form “Solidarity”. The SSP went from having six members of the Scottish Parliament in 2003 to zero in 2007. Its vote dropped from 128,026, 6.7%, to 12,572 across the country, 0.66% on average.
The SSP shipwreck was especially relevant for the DSP, since the SSP was our inspiration, our model, for the Socialist Alliance here. Of course, we’d always make the qualification that conditions are different and we were “not following recipe books.” But we were looking to the SSP for ideas, we were hoping to follow in their footsteps, even to the extent of leading comrades asking, in formal reports, “Who can be our Tommy Sheridan?”
But following the SSP disaster, there was no discussion in DSP bodies on trying to analyse what went wrong and draw some lessons for our Socialist Alliance course. We all knew which side we should have been on in the disastrous split: the facts of the matter were known; Sheridan’s behaviour towards the party was atrocious. And we could clearly see the opportunistic and sectarian behaviour of the SWP and CWI. The information was available to us. We’ve also had DSP comrades working in the SSP for many years, and comrades have frequently visited Scotland and observed their conferences. So a political assessment would have been possible, and necessary, given the weight the DSP had put on the SSP successes.
There hasn’t been much published analysing the cause of the crisis by the SSP leadership themselves. An article by central SSP leader Alan McCombes, “The day Scotland’s rainbow parliament turned grey”, points to the central role of Sheridan and the supporting role of the SWP and CWI in the election debacle. He also analyses the “massacre for the left” at the election as partly due to the squeeze on voters, seeing a vital choice between the Scottish National Party and the British Labour Party, as well as the huge number of disqualified votes adversely affecting working class voters and thus the SSP (more than 140,000, or 7% of the total cast.). (Activist, Vol. 17, No. 5, July 2007)
But so far there doesn’t seem to have been a deep analysis of how the SSP could be brought down by one individual, and what could have been done to prevent such a situation. I think we’d all have to agree it wasn’t just the star problem, though that was a big problem. Sheridan was a particularly bad case; the party was overwhelmingly identified with Sheridan as an individual; and when he went berserk, there was little chance of an easy recovery from the wreckage.
But it especially brings into question the wisdom of scrapping the Marxist core organisation within the SSP, the International Socialist Movement, which initially organised the central Marxist leaders of it, who initially came from Scottish Militant Labour, the CWI group. This was an issue being debated in the ISM several years ago, and at one time there were three viewpoints: one group wanted to scrap the ISM (which is what happened), one group wanted it to stay as a fairly loose caucus, and a third group argued for a tightening up of the Marxist core group.
There are many functions of such a Marxist core within a broad left party. One would be to impose a certain discipline on leading comrades who might have a tendency to get out of control or run amok (although probably not even the tightest caucus would have been able to control Tommy Sheridan once he had set himself on that ruinous course). But there was an even more fundamental problem that was not getting addressed in the SSP with only a partially functioning Marxist core group, and was not getting addressed at all when the ISM dissolved. That’s the problem of the regeneration of Marxist cadres. The SSP was developing a broader base and getting recognition and winning votes, but the big problem was that this was nearly all done on the backs of cadres who had been recruited and trained in the previous Marxist cadre parties, primarily Scottish Militant Labour. This was a problem that the SSP leaders admitted to us when we visited there. It was a problem that our own comrades who were working in Scotland could clearly identify. In 2004, for example, only a handful of SSP members would sell the SSP paper Scottish Socialist Voice outside of the original core of cadres who had been trained in Militant.
The SSP youth did start to develop and train some new cadres, but it was a fairly slow process, and small numbers compared to the weight of the SSP itself.
Another way this problem appeared was in the literature available — or not available — in their office and on their bookstalls. At one stage we offered to make available bulk copies of our Marxist classics and reprints and all our books on complete credit, but they declined the offer. I got the impression they felt our range of books and pamphlets would detract from their “broadness.” I don’t think much was happening in the way of Marxist education.
Some of the central leaders of the SSP had come to the view that the Marxist core group was no longer needed, that the broad, pluralist, socialist party they were building and were at the helm of was the only body to build. New SSP activists came to consciously reject the idea of a Leninist cadre party. Certainly this became the view of one of the SSP leaders, Murray Smith, who returned to live in France and was on the National Committee of the French LCR. Murray Smith had developed the view that revolutionary Marxists should not organise separately, that a Leninist type of party was old hat, and he supported the minority in the LCR that wanted broad unity.
A lesson that we all might want to draw from the experience is that if building a broad party, with the necessary Marxist core group as well, then the length of time that this situation goes on can’t be indefinite; the longer it’s drawn out, the more chance of crises arising.
The various efforts at building a broad party to the left of Labour in England had neither the success nor the potential of the SSP in Scotland. Objectively, the more militant tradition within the Scottish working class meant the SSP had a better chance, and subjectively, the dominance on the left of the majority of Scottish Militant Labour and their willingness to break with their London head office meant there were the forces willing to give a broad party a try.
Phil Hearse and Liam MacUaid point out in their assessment of the break-up of Respect: “Respect is the third major attempt to build a united left formation in the last 15 years — preceded by the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) launched by Arthur Scargill in 1994 and the Socialist Alliance refounded at the beginning of this decade. The SLP foundered on Scargill’s insistence on his own bureaucratic control and the Socialist Alliance’s potential was far from maximised: indeed the SWP’s decision to sideline the SA during the height of the anti-war movement effectively sealed its fate.” (Phil Hearse and Liam MacUaid, Activist, Vol. 17, No. 12, November 2007)
Once the SWP moved into the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party/CWI moved out. (This move was the change of line of the SWP towards participation in elections that signalled to us here in the DSP that a Socialist Alliance with the ISO might be possible.) First the SP, then the SWP, dominated, then abandoned the Socialist Alliance, with only a husk remaining.
Two years ago we saw the bitter split and destruction of Respect. It never had the broad base established by the SSP at its height. And it always lacked the democratic structures for inclusion of different currents and structures to guarantee accountability. It began essentially as an alliance between the SWP, George Galloway, expelled Labour MP, anti-war activists, and sections of the Muslim community in East London and Birmingham. This alliance has now spectacularly come apart.
There are lots of lessons from this Respect split — not necessarily new insights, but reinforcement of old lessons.
There are certainly more lessons here about the “star” problem, and problems of accountability and democratic functioning. Galloway was never under any democratic control. An embarrassing display on Big Brother was undertaken without any discussion in Respect. Galloway kept all the quite substantial MP’s salary for himself. While it was in alliance with Galloway, the SWP defended all this.
The SWP made many errors and lost authority and members. It was certainly the overwhelmingly largest political organisation in Respect, but insisted on its tight control. Perhaps a main cause of the failure was the sectarianism and clumsy organisational methods of the SWP. That’s not too surprising; it’s not at odds with their bureaucratic internal regime, which is a caricature of Leninism. The SWP allows very limited possibilities for debate and discussion, gives little space for minorities to argue their views. Factions are frowned on, there’s no right of faction or tendency outside the limited pre-conference discussion period. Anyone who argues for such measures or defends a consistent criticism is ostracised, called anti-Leninists or permanent factionalists and fairly soon is forced out of the party. As a result, the SWP is now involved in a factional struggle leading up to its conference in January, with the possibility of a split or expulsion looming.
There’s no disputing the sectarianism and the unwise moves of the SWP, in Scotland or in England. But it’s not proof of the failure of Leninism, as most of the opponents of Leninism commenting on the Respect fiasco concluded. It’s proof, maybe, that the SWP leadership do not understand much about Leninism.
Some are still hoping that Respect without the SWP can develop into the broad left party to the left of Labour. Alan Thornett argues that the “objective conditions that created Respect are still objectively there ... space to the left of Labour”. But even if Galloway gets re-elected, Respect without the SWP is not a very broad party.
Moreover, the next largest Marxist group, the Socialist Party (CWI), has its own broad party project, the “Campaign for a New Workers Party” and is pushing to continue the No2EU campaign that stood in the 2009 European elections. This coalition also included the Communist Party of Britain and the Alliance for Green Socialism and was supported by Bob Crow (general secretary, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), Brian Caton (general secretary, Prison Officers’ Association) and some other union officials. So we could soon end up with the different Marxist groups in Britain each with their own blueprint for the “new party”, usually around themselves.
An article by Andrew Johnson on the web site of Socialist Democracy, the Irish FI group, analysed this dilemma in May 2005 and drew some conclusions:
“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 materialized …”
“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!” (“The fight for a new workers’ party and unity on the left – Chapter 1, 2, 3”, by Andrew Johnson, May 3, 2005, http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/OnlinePublications.htm#New%20workers%2...)
Proponents of the “broad party” strategy will admit the disasters for the perspective in Brazil, Italy, Scotland and England, but feel a lot more confident about progress in Portugal and Denmark. In Portugal and Denmark the FI groups have been involved in fairly stable, successful left alliances — the Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Left Bloc in Portugal.
Both alliances have been able to involve several small parties, with no party playing an overwhelmingly dominant role, stifling the other groups. The Marxist parties that are involved in these alliances have not completely submerged their own parties. The FI groups, for example, still find their own groups necessary for cadre development, and for Marxist education. The component groups can still have their own publications.
The Left Bloc in Portugal was formed in 1998 with the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the section of the Fourth International in Portugal, a party of former Maoists and a section of the Portuguese Communist Party, together with a number of independent socialists.
In the Portuguese elections last September 27 the Left Bloc increased its vote from 6% to nearly 10%, and doubled its representation in the assembly from 8 to 16 members. It’s done well in face of a fairly strong old-style Communist Party. And as far as I know, so far they seem to have avoided the dangers of electoralist politics.
In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedlisten) was formed in 1989 by three left-wing parties: the Left Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Denmark and the Socialist Workers Party, the Danish FI group. Others join as independent socialists, and they claim there are a majority of members now not in any of the constituent parties, but the original parties still maintain their existence.
The Red-Green Alliance slipped a little in their vote in the 2007 elections, winning 2.2% and 4 seats compared to 3.4% and 6 seats in 2005.
Proponents of the “broad party” approach also approvingly cite Die Linke in Germany. In general it’s a positive step, but poses a number of tricky questions for German Marxists, including the question of coalition governments with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Die Linke (The Left) was founded in 2007 by the merger of the progressive remnants of the old ruling Socialist Equality Party of East Germany (Party of Democratic Socialism) with Labour and Social Justice — The Electoral Alternative (WASG), a left split from social democracy led by former SPD president Oskar Lafontaine. In the September 27, 2009, elections the SDP vote collapsed, while Die Linke registered 11.9%, 3.2 percentage points more than in the previous election. The party now has 76 members in the Bundestag, up from 54. In most parts of the former East Germany, Die Linke is now the largest party.
It’s probably tactically correct to enter Die Linke, as many of the Trotskyist groups have done: the IST supporters, a newly formed group, Marx 21, the CWI group and one of the FI groups, the International Socialist Left (ISL).
The Revolutionary Socialist League (RSB), the other FI group, has remained outside, probably a mistake, but it wrote a document in 2007 asking the question: “Broad parties — A universal goal in organizational construction?” which has been submitted to the FI’s World Congress discussion and makes a number of sharp points, including a basic reminder that the ultimate goal is a revolutionary party, something that can get neglected in entries.
In Greece there is a broad left electoral alliance, SYRIZA, Coalition of the Radical Left, which pulled together a number of the far left groups around Synaspismos, itself a “broad” left social democratic group. It won 5 percent in the 2007 election, electing 14 MPs, and got 4.6 per cent this year, electing 13 MPs. However, the right wing of Synaspismos and the largest tendency in SYRIZA, pushed to have SYRIZA ensure that PASOK, the social democratic party, achieved a parliamentary majority.
A broad party has formed in Quebec in the last few years, Quebec Solidaire, founded in February 2006, with a member, Amir Khadir, elected to the Quebec National Assembly, and registering 5-8% in the polls. It’s a coming together of several social movements, an evolving formation, with a program not clearly defined, anti-neoliberal, but without an explicit working class or socialist perspective. It allows groupings to organise within it, and the FI group Gauche Socialiste is affiliated, along with others. It’s possible to intervene, as in Die Linke, and doesn’t negate the continuing building of a revolutionary Marxist party.
Solidarity in the US can perhaps be termed a “broad party”, but with no mass base. It was founded as a regroupment of several Trotskyist currents, with a conscious “pluralist”, anti-Leninist approach. Their most recent conference in November had about 90-20 people, indicating it’s still pretty much in the doldrums, and their perspective has been no panacea for growth. The International Socialist Organisation has been able to grow considerably in the last period, especially among youth, getting a total of about 2000 at its two conferences mid-year.
The Socialist Workers group in New Zealand have taken up the “broad party” line most uncritically and enthusiastically, and are implementing it in a right-wing fashion. They now operate through RAM, which stands for Residents Action Movement. Based in Auckland, RAM had decent election results there in 2004 and 2007, but since then the results nationally have been no better, sometimes worse, than openly socialist groups.
Sadly it seemed they’d taken some cues from the DSP majority in Australia.
It’s not even a broad socialist approach, but a populist appeal to “residents”, or “the grassroots”: “The goal of unity is to build credible broad left parties or coalitions which win the respect of grassroots people” says RAM/SW leader Vaughan Gunson.
Now they’re putting their focus on a campaign against the “bad banks”, stooping to a nationalist low, campaigning against “Aussie-owned” banks!
You’d have to say that the two places where the “broad party” strategy has been most crudely misapplied have been New Zealand and Australia.
The creation of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) by the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) in France has been held up by the partisans of the “broad party” strategy as a prime example. But it is not. It’s a continuation of the strategy of building a revolutionary party, and a very special case, in particular French circumstances. It’s a gamble that had to be taken by the LCR. The actual proponents of the “broad party” strategy in the LCR opposed this course; they wanted a broader, less principled unity, and many of them left before the NPA was formed in January 2009.
For the past decade and a half the Fourth International has had the perspective of trying to build anti-capitalist parties or alliances. The French LCR has been the largest section of the FI, and in effect its political leadership, even if they sometimes have not directly or heavily intervened in the running of the FI. They’ve implemented this line in a sensible way, without falling into the error of converting it into a strategy.
The LCR comrades had some basis for the gamble of dissolving the LCR and forming the NPA. It was on the basis of real revolutionary traditions; it came on the back of a real political upsurge in recent years in France; and there were real forces around them — thousands of newly activated supporters — to be consolidated in a new party.
In the electoral arena the LCR had confronted the larger French CP, with a shrinking but still significant working class base, shrinking electoral support and a commitment to a governmental bloc with the Socialist Party. The LCR also confronted the problem of another Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvriere, that was rather sectarian and mostly abstained from the political campaigns the LCR was involved in, but which had been able to outdo the LCR on the electoral plane in the past, especially with their usual presidential candidate, Arlette Laguillier. The LCR had pushed for electoral blocs with LO and another Trotskyist organisation, Parti des Travailleurs (PT). In the 2002 presidential elections, the LCR’s candidate, Olivier Besancenot, a young postman, gained 1.2 million votes, 4.25%, an increase on their past results, but the LO candidate got 5.7%.
In the lead-up to the 2007 presidential elections the LCR participated in an attempt to get a united left election campaign going, with themselves, the CP and all the activists involved in the French “No” campaign in the European referendum in 2005. The unitary collectives established to run the 2005 campaign were transformed into collectives for a united campaign for the 2007 presidential elections, initially involving 15,000 activists.
But the LCR majority leadership refused to be pressured into an unprincipled campaign, making clear that any united campaign should be firm against giving support to a Socialist Party government. They insisted on a clear statement refusing to participate in any future SP-dominated government. In September 2006, unable to get a clear guarantee, they set in motion their own presidential campaign of Olivier Besancenot. (In France the signatures of 500 mayors are required to get on the ballot.)
In December the French CP also pulled out of the unitary campaign attempt, after trying to impose their own comrade, Marie-George Buffet, as the unitary candidate.
A 40% minority in the LCR still opposed the Besancenot campaign, and with some of the remaining forces kept the attempt at a unitary campaign going, and farmers leader and anti-globalisation activist Jose Bove emerged as the presidential candidate.
The result of the election was a win for the right, Sarkozy, and the overall far left vote was down, but within that framework the LCR campaign was extremely successful. The left results were:
Besancenot, LCR, 4.1%
Buffet, PCF: 1.9%
LO: 1.3 %.
More important than the actual vote, Besancenot’s campaign had huge meetings, at least double the size of previous LCR election meetings, including big turnouts in traditional PCF working class regions. Four thousand came to the LCR’s final campaign meeting in Paris. During the campaign 2000 people applied to join the LCR. This comes on top of the LCR growing from 1000 to 3000 from its successful political organising and election campaigns in recent years.
The LCR minority, including Murray Smith, insisting on a unitary campaign at any cost, ended up in a terrible predicament. Many of them supported the Bove campaign rather than the LCR Besancenot campaign! Some of the minority resigned from the LCR, including long-time central leader Michel Husson. This stance of the LCR minority illustrates the danger of getting stuck, turning a tactic into a strategy.
The majority line was proved in practice. After their electoral success the LCR majority leadership were in a strong position and confident enough to propose a tactical move that could maximise their gains and consolidate their new, bigger supporter base. They proposed to launch a new party — around themselves, and with their clear principled politics — the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA).
This new party didn’t satisfy the proponents of the “broad party” strategy within their ranks, such as Murray Smith. In an article he circulated just before the 2007 election he states: “There is no doubt that the LCR carries part of the responsibility for this, situation [no united campaign]. In principle, it is committed to the perspective of building a new anti-capitalist force. However, even before the current elections, it has never succeeded, not only in concretizing this perspective, but in taking an initiative that is even a little bit serious. The reasons advanced for this, variously the objective situation and political obstacles, are very much open to question.” (“The radical left in Europe”, Activist, Vol. 17, No. 6, July 2007) Murray Smith is in the framework where he thinks broad left parties are universally the way to go, whatever the situation.
The proponents of the broad party strategy in the DSP welcomed the LCR call for a new party, thinking it could be interpreted as support for their line in SA, and hoping it would draw attention away from the actual experience of the LCR and the elections, and the real debate that had taken place within the LCR between the majority leadership who had a sensible approach of attempting to build the revolutionary party, while exploring any realistic and principled anti-capitalist alliances or new parties, and the minority who defended a united party at any cost perspective, even to the extent of organising against their own party’s election campaign.
Peter Boyle’s July National Committee report announcing their perspective of dissolving the DSP into Socialist Alliance tried to compare it with the situation in France with the LCR, quoting large slabs (a fifth of his report) from LCR leader Francois Sabado in explaining the process of the LCR dissolving and establishing the NPA.
Boyle tried to pre-empt objections: “Some might counter any reference to the French example with the cry: ‘But Australia is not France! The class struggle is more advanced in France than in Australia.’ And, of course, that is true.” But this was a token recognition; he then moves on and makes no case for why it might be partially relevant. His only argument? Now we have a Labor government: “Now the potential exists for mass disillusionment with Labor and therefore greater openness to left alternatives. This was closed in the previous period of SA building under Howard.”
The NPA was a gamble, and I’m sure the LCR leadership are fully aware of the ongoing problems they’ll face in trying to pull it off. It’s not guaranteed that they’ll succeed in building a new revolutionary party with a significantly larger membership and impact. 2009 hasn’t been easy. They had a disappointing result in the European elections, just failing to reach the necessary 5% to get elected. Many members expected better. I read a report that membership is back down to 8000 from the initial 9000.
Pierre Rousset, the long-term LCR leader who has related most to Asia and us, recently expressed some worries about how the NPA was going. It was going okay, but also in difficult waters, having to learn to build itself against the stream. The socio-political situation was not very favourable, with a lull in struggles, and continuous political offensives to try to isolate the NPA. Marxist education was beginning again, but you have to rebuild an education system with little “evident legitimacy”, because there was no common history, he said.
And the NPA has been divided three ways in trying to work out tactics and form an electoral front for the regional elections in 2010. They tried for unity with the Parti de Gauche, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon (who recently left the neoliberal Parti Socialiste) and other social democratic groups like les Alternatives and the Parti Communiste (which together constitute the Front de Gauche). This unity broke down because in the end they couldn’t get a guarantee that it would not lead to a deal with the Parti Socialiste, most likely in the second round of voting. The NPA national leadership points out that the Front de Gauche, in which the Parti Communiste played a decisive role, attempted to set up electoral lists clearly with the perspective of managing regional government together with the Parti Socialiste and Europe Ecologie (Greens).
To try to resolve the debate, the NPA organised a referendum in which members could vote on three proposals:
- Platform A, the national leadership: there is no national agreement, but continue regional agreements.
- Platform B, to the left of the leadership: NPA lists independent of the social democrats and the Communist Party. A turn to workers’ and students’ struggles.
- Platform C, to the right of the others: alliance with social democrats at the national level. This means unity with the Parti Socialiste and the neoliberal greens of Europe Ecologie.
The result was the division of the party into three roughly equal parts, none of them securing a majority. The Central Committee, however, voted 70% in favour of the leadership position.
In December 2004, Francois Sabado, the pen name of a central leader of the LCR and of the FI, wrote a very sharp article contributing to a debate in 2004 on “Building broad anti-capitalist parties — a necessary step” that included Alex Callinicos of the British SWP, Murray Smith and Alan Thornett, leader of the British FI group. Sabado warned against many of the dangers and dead-ends of the “broad party” perspective. We printed Sabado’s article in the Activist in 2004, and during the PCD discussion in 2007 we referred to it again, pointing out that these were “wise words ignored” by the DSP leadership. He wrote:
The axis of a new party will probably be exterior to the old traditional organizations. Its social and political base will rest on the new generations, experiences of struggle and social movements. It will take up the red thread of revolutionary history while expressing above all a revolutionary policy for the 21st century. But this new party will not be established by decree. It should result from a whole process of political experiences marked by events or the convergence of significant forces which create the conditions for a reorganization of the workers’ movement and the construction of a new party. In Scotland, it is the specific combination of the social question and the national question which has made possible the emergence of the SSP. In Portugal, it is the convergence of several currents originating in the CP, the UDP (ex-Maoist), the PSR (section of the Fourth International) and independent personalities which has given birth to the Left Bloc. It is decisive that the revolutionaries organize this process on “class struggle” bases, but they can only constitute this new party on the basis of a dynamic that largely goes beyond the current framework of the revolutionary organization. A new party cannot be a self-disguising of the revolutionary organization. The new anti-capitalist force must broadly transcend the revolutionary organization. Without this added value, the new force can only appear as a projection of the revolutionary organization or one of its fronts. In France, while the LCR has for some years taken initiatives for a new political force, it has not proclaimed a new party that would only have been an enlarged LCR, but without its history and without its programmatic bases …
And this pursuit of the construction of a revolutionary leadership through a broad party in unfinished contours can only be done if the new party is much broader, much more extensive than the revolutionary organization. If the conditions of a real transcendence of the revolutionary organization do not exist, if the forms of a new force are less significant than those of the revolutionary organization, and we hurry the rhythms and modalities of construction of such a party, we lose in substance — programme, history, and revolutionary experience — without gaining in political and organizational breadth. Thus, inasmuch as the conditions for a broad party do not exist, the accumulation of forces for a revolutionary leadership in the broad sense is done essentially through the construction of the revolutionary organization and by initiatives favouring the conditions for this new party, rather than by the proclamation of a new force on the cheap. (“Political situation, anti-capitalist party and revolutionary party in Europe”, Activist, Vol. 14, No. 5, December 2004)
Other experiences around the world
The dynamic towards “broad parties” has not been the same in underdeveloped countries. However, unfortunately in some parties in Third World countries, they made the mistake of following too closely what was happening in a party in an imperialist country. And partisans of the “broad party” strategy in the DSP would blindly misapply it to the Third World as well: for example, one majority leader at a PCD discussion in Sydney lumped the DSP together with the PRD in Indonesia, the LPP in Pakistan and the PSM in Malaysia, as well as the LCR in France, claiming they’re all engaged in broad party alliances so “we’re in good company.”
Sometimes, the push for a “broad party” was followed slavishly, with disastrous results. First of all, as noted above, unless you’re hegemonic on the left, alliances and questions of unity are going to be regular issues raised, but will be addressed in many different forms. Secondly, the types of alliances and fronts required in neo-colonial countries will be different than in imperialist countries: fronts for democracy, or national liberation, will be central. Thirdly, a basic lesson that revolutionaries absorb is that you don’t hide or immerse your revolutionary Marxist forces except for good reason — the need to develop a viable political front, or the need to defend yourself against state repression and victimisation. You don’t go underground unless it’s necessary.
Indonesia has shown us one of the saddest results stemming from an over-concentration on electoralism and the desire to water down or submerge principled politics in a desperate bid for electoral success. It led to the degeneration of the PRD-Papernas and an unprincipled submersion in a right-wing Islamic party, and the expulsion of the minority who defended the previous revolutionary perspectives of the PRD. One can only conclude that PRD-Papernas took its terrible turn to electoralism and opportunism as a result of relying on what was being said by the DSP leadership. Since the debacle the DSP and its Green Left Weekly have been silent on Indonesia.
In India the CPI (ML) Liberation recently suffered a small split by a current in Uttar Pradesh that wanted the party to step back from functioning as a communist party and instead set up a broad democratic front, to try to improve its acceptance among “democratic forces”. The party leadership characterised this perspective as “liquidationist”. This minority perspective was supported by some of the party leaders in Uttar Pradesh, and voted for by 16 of the congress delegates at the December 2007 congress.
Since the congress, this difference in the party has come to a head. Although re-elected to the Central Committee, former UP state secretary Akhilendra Pratap Singh didn’t attend CC meetings in March and June, and instead of working to implement the party line, insisted that he be allowed to launch his “national people’s party”. He has been expelled from the Central Committee. A thorough article on the issues and background to the dispute by CPI (ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya appeared in the September 2008 issue of Liberation.
What were the origins and base of this liquidationist trend? Perhaps frustration at difficulties in winning parliamentary representation, and overestimating the importance of parliament for building a revolutionary party. The CPI (ML) is a party that tries to combine all forms of struggle, combining the parliamentary with the extra-parliamentary, while keeping the former subordinated to the latter. This frustration can lead to a search for short cuts, and seeking to water down the presentation of the party’s politics as a substitute for building support on the ground.
A similar phenomenon occurred in LALIT, in Mauritius. We only found out last year that that there had been a split in LALIT over similar issues that led to our expulsion from the DSP, only there the group making a fetish of the “broad party” was in a minority, and left.
Linkage in Taiwan was the beginnings of a socialist movement that we started to have contact with a few years ago. But it seems they’ve suffered from illusions about the need for a broad party too. In 2007 one of the leading people decided the focus should be a broad electoral front. This had an absolutely liberal program, without any pro-labour politics. A fight ensued in Linkage, and for the last two years the group has been paralysed, the journal has stopped, no books have been published, and the web site has gone quiet. A minority group left, apparently, but they haven’t got themselves organised.
Impact of Chavez’s call
What does Chavez’s call for the construction of a Fifth International mean for the future of broad party efforts?
A new revolution or a revolutionary upsurge can be the energising and unifying factor. (That’s what our hopes for the Socialist Alliance were initially founded on.) The Russian Revolution, for example, and Lenin’s call for a new international in 1920, attracted newly radicalising working class forces, and served to draw together disparate groups. A sorting out process occurred, around struggles over the program. False friends fell away. The Bolsheviks needed international support to defend their revolution, but especially recognised that the best defence would be from new revolutions in other countries.
It could be that Chavez, backed by the Cubans, sees a similar dynamic. The call is designed to develop greater support and solidarity, but especially wants to foster the growth of revolutionary parties and revolutions. It could have the same sorting out function that happened with the Communist International. So “broad parties” would be put to the test: what’s their program? Will they support revolutions, in Venezuela, and in their own country? So this could be both a unifying and a clarifying process.
In Venezuela, there is a real revolution happening, there is a mass movement, with the majority of working people supporting it. Apart from being an underdeveloped country, the level of political consciousness and struggle in Venezuela is incomparably different to the situation in advanced capitalist countries, where the revolutionary forces are weak and the working class is in retreat. We can and should use the Venezuelan example to inspire and help recruit in our countries, but there are no lessons and no comparisons to be drawn with the “broad party” strategy being touted as an alternative to building a revolutionary party.
Yet Jim McIlroy tries to do just that in his November contribution to the DSP’s pre-congress discussion, while trying to cover himself by acknowledging the different situations: “The situation of the PSUV is in one sense totally incomparable to that of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. The PSUV had an initial nominal membership of nearly 7 million, with an active membership of almost 2.5 million! However, the PSUV is a form of regroupment …”
FI World Congress debate
The FI adopted a perspective of building anti-capitalist parties in Europe and other countries. Even though the DSP was not part of any formed “international” we followed international events closely, looking for ideas. But the adoption of “broad party” or “anti-capitalist party” perspectives was generalised, certainly for parties which were part of internationals. The DSP majority leadership also adopted this as a general strategic perspective, despite the differences from country to country, despite the failure of the class struggle to advance, and despite the clear failure of Socialist Alliance here. But most of these broad party efforts have failed.
On top of the overall problems of the FI, the contradictions of their “building anti-capitalist parties” line are unravelling. The main document drafted for the FI’s World Congress in February 2010, “The Role and Tasks of the FI”, reiterates the “broad anti-capitalist parties” line:
The common goal, via different paths, is that of broad anti-capitalist parties. It is not a question of taking up the old formulas of regroupment of revolutionary currents alone. The ambition is to bring together forces beyond simply revolutionary ones. These can be a support in the process of bringing forces together as long as they are clearly for building anti-capitalist parties. Although there is no model, since each process of coming together takes account of national specificities and relationships of forces, our goal must thus be to seek to build broad anti-capitalist political forces, independent of social democracy and the centre left, formations which reject any policy of participation or support to class-collaborationist governments, today government with social-democracy and the centre left.
What we know of the experiences of differentiation and reorganization in Africa and Asia point in the same direction.
The FI has had its own concept of a new international: “the question of a new International is and will be posed. We act and we will continue to act so that it is not posed in terms of ideological or historical choices, which are likely to lead to divisions and splits. It must be posed on a double level, on the one hand real political convergence on tasks of international intervention, on the other pluralism of the new formations, which must bring together currents of various origins: Trotskyists of different kinds, libertarians, revolutionary syndicalists, revolutionary nationalists, left reformists.”
But “the emergence of a new international force, and all the more so, of a new International, is not, at this stage, foreseeable”. They were caught off guard, however; even before the World Congress their course has been further unsettled by Chavez’s call. The critique of the German Revolutioner-Sozialistische Bund (RSB) makes a lot of sense:
“1. We think there cannot be a single tactic for building a revolutionary organisation. Yet the text in discussion suggests that there can be a universal building line, although situations in countries may be very different and although most of the sections cannot apply the tactic of regroupment with other forces and still less apply the line of building a broad organisation. Thus ‘broad parties’ cannot be the universal goal in building our organisations.”
2. There’s “no reason to play down the difference between reformism and revolutionary Marxism”. Anti-capitalist has come to mean different things.
3. What program, what is “21st century socialism”?
4. What is a “pluralistic left”?
5. In the near future, there is no question of us being in a position to rebuild the international workers’ movement.
6. Finally, we need a thorough debate on the evolution of reformist parties.
The mechanical transposition of a specific model to other countries has led many comrades in the International to speak out for an almost unspecified “broad party”, even in regions and cases where we could not really expect the creation of an anticapitalist force.
We have to draw up a frank balance sheet of our work in “broad parties” because in various countries the formation of “broad parties” has met with failure. In Italy the PRC has taken a steady rightward course. In Brazil, the “broad party” project, PT, which even seemed anticapitalist at its beginnings has evolved towards a neoliberal project.
Behind the anti-neoliberal party/anticapitalist party debate, we can discern the older debate opposing reformist party and revolutionary party. One of the key points is the attitude towards the bourgeois state apparatus.
We do not consider it useful to apply a universal tactic for the building of “broad” parties, “anti-neoliberal” parties or “anticapitalist” parties. Often such tactics get blown up into strategies, which — in the best of cases — prove to be mere chimeras when confronted with the reality of concrete traditions, evolutions and perspectives of the actual workers’ movement in different countries. In the worst cases, schemas are imposed on sections, causing them quite a few problems. We are not opposed in principle to similar tactics or those of the same kind on the international level, but we see them as useful only in the context of an international upturn in workers’ struggles, for example as in the years 1917-23, 1934-37, 1968-1974/75). During defensive periods, the differences between workers’ movements in their respective countries are much starker, so it is much harder to apply a common tactic.
Lessons, and the range of dangers
All the recent experiences of broad parties internationally seem to reconfirm the old lessons:
1. Whether such a broad party is likely to succeed, and whether it’s wise to launch one, depends on the political situation. It depends on leftward moving forces, a political upsurge, forces that could break to the left from reformist parties. In times of political downturn or retreat, it’s not a wise tactic.
2. Such a tactic depends on having real forces to sustain it, enough revolutionary cadres from one or more Marxist organisation. Just running up a new flag in that space won’t be enough. And if it continues for any length of time, you’ll need ways to recruit and train new cadre.
3. The politics of the unity or broad party does matter. It needs a class-struggle, anti-capitalist program — anything less and you might as well just join the old social democrats.
All the European examples of the “broad party tactic” were worth giving a go — alliances, blocs, electoral alliances, entering broad left parties. But there is no easy path, no necessary tactic. And we also have to be aware of the dangers of the tactic that many of the recent experiences with broad parties seem to point to:
· the danger of getting stuck in a permanent halfway house;
· the danger of degeneration onto an anti-Leninist path;
· the danger of substituting and masquerading as the broad party.
A danger: getting stuck in a halfway house
Revolutionary Marxists need the flexibility to try different tactics to win broader support, but there’s no virtue in sticking with a failed course. We shouldn’t get stuck on a “broad party” or unity initiative that is not working. Even worse, we shouldn’t try to justify theoretically a failed tactic, to convert it from a tactic to a permanent strategy.
Doggedness can sometimes be a virtue, but not on a wrong course. In the difficult political situation of the last decade, some revolutionary Marxists internationally have generalised too far. They had adopted the “broad party” tactic as already more than a tactic, as a principle for all times and situations. The DSP majority leadership backed itself into a corner, defending the “Socialist Alliance as the party we build” tactic come what may, and now dissolving the DSP.
Another problem when a tactic gets elevated to a permanent principle is that you become blinded to the possibilities of other tactical opportunities that might open up. You miss new chances through being stuck with old tactics. For all the hype about the SA line opening up these broad contacts and support, an objective comparison would show that the DSP had more contacts, more GLW subs, more contacts at GLW dinners, more comrades involved in campaigns and committees in the years before adopting the SA straitjacket.
Conditions that would allow building the Socialist Alliance as a broad socialist party don’t exist; the project has clearly failed. The majority leadership in the DSP had invested a lot of energy and hope in the effort to build SA. It proved too difficult to abandon, or change course when that was needed. So a further change in the explanation, the rationale for SA developed. The “any party worth its salt” justification was coined, claiming that revolutionary Marxist parties always need a halfway house in order to be able to attract workers:
“Any revolutionary party worth its salt has to chart a course of both recruiting directly to itself, as well as an orientation that can win people who are looking for a political alternative to Labor (and in some cases the Greens, for disenchanted Greens members) to a class struggle workers’ party, even if it is not yet revolutionary.” (Sue Bolton, Activist, Vol. 15, No. 8, October 2005)
There’s a danger that many little halfway houses get established, fail to fulfil their hopes of winning the masses and remain dotted around the landscape like gravestones, obstacles to real developments towards building revolutionary workers parties with a base in the class. In France the remnants of the unitary campaign around Jose Bove play that role, a clear obstacle, but soaking up Marxists who turned the broad party tactic into a principle. In Britain there are several stagnant remnants already scattered around: Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party; the Socialist Alliance; and Respect looks like another. In Australia the Progressive Labor Party is a skeleton, but still outpolls the SA in Newcastle.
A danger: giving up on Leninist parties
Finally, the major danger of the “broad party” perspective is that you can drift into giving up on the very idea of a Leninist party. Some on the left had drawn false conclusions about the place for Leninist parties in the struggle today — regarding them as outdated, or an obstacle. Some adopted this position on their path out of the movement, arguing that democratic centralism as an organising principle was positively harmful. Some have theorised their opposition to vanguard parties, to Leninism, as a result of the problems they encountered in sectarian Trotskyist parties. (For example, some former US SWP members drew these conclusions directly from their experiences with the degeneration of the US SWP.)
Murray Smith and Andy Newman and Peter Boyle and Dave Riley would probably argue that a broad socialist party is a stepping stone in today’s conditions to building a mass revolutionary party in the future. But they have certainly rejected the idea of building a Leninist party now, or even a revolutionary caucus within the broad socialist party.
Giving up on Leninism permanently is a definite danger, as we’ve seen with some broad party developments, such as with the Dutch SP. But even when Marxists might see dissolving the Marxist core as a temporary tactic, there are some insuperable problems. For example, cadre can’t develop and be trained and educated just in the broad party. There’s no democratic relationship among the revolutionary Marxists, which is essential to working out perspectives, and also for training cadres. So there’s the question: how long without a Leninist party can you survive?
The “broad party” perspective as a strategy has failed, and in no way replaces the Leninist, revolutionary Marxist party-building strategy. The current working class retreat and low levels of struggles will not continue forever. While we cannot predict how or where a next upsurge will take place, there will be more radical upsurges. At that time, whether in the near future or further down the track, the existence of operating revolutionary cadre parties will be essential to discovering the tactics required to meet any 21st century upsurges, including whatever united front, regroupment or other unity initiatives are required.