[Marxism] Broad left parties and revolutionary currents...

Ratbag Media ratbagradio at gmail.com
Fri Oct 23 21:20:07 MDT 2009


ttp://liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/phalanxes-are-bad/

Broad left parties (or alliances) are not united fronts around specific
questions, but political blocs. For them to develop and keep their unity, they
have to function according to basic democratic rules. However this cannot be
reduced to the simplistic notion that there are votes and the majority rules.
This leaves out of account the anomalies and anti-democratic practices which the
existence of organised revolutionary currents can give rise to if they operate
in a factional way. On this we would advance the following general guidelines:

*

Inside broad left formations there has to be a real, autonomous political
life in which people who are not members of an organised current can have
confidence that decisions are not being made behind their backs in a disciplined
caucus that will impose its views – they have to be confident that their
political contribution can affect political debates.
*

This means that no revolutionary current can have the `disciplined
Phalanx' concept of operation. Except in the case of the degeneration of a broad
left current (as in Brazil) we are not doing entry work or fighting a
bureaucratic leadership. This means in most debates, most of the time, members
of political currents should have the right to express their own viewpoint
irrespective of the majority view in their own current. If this doesn't happen
the real balance of opinion is obscured and democracy negated. Evidently this
shouldn't be the case on decisive questions of the interest of the working class
and oppressed – like sending troops to Afghanistan. But if there are differences
on issues like that, then membership of a revolutionary current is put in
question.
*

Revolutionary tendencies should avoid like the plague attempts to use
their organisational weight to impose decisions against everyone else. That's a
disastrous mode of operation in which democracy is a fake. If a revolutionary
tendency can't win its opinions in open and democratic debate, unless it
involves fundamental questions of the interest of the working class and
oppressed, compromises and concessions have to be made. Democracy is a fake if a
revolutionary current says `debate is OK, and we'll pack meetings to ensure we
win it'.
*

Revolutionaries – individuals and currents – have to demonstrate their
commitment and loyalty to the broad left formation of which they are a part.
That means prioritising the activities and press of the broad formation itself.
Half in, half out, doesn't work.
*

We should put no a priori limits on the evolution of a broad left
formation. Its evolution will be determined by how it responds to the major
questions in the fight against imperialism and neoliberal capitalism, not by
putting a 1930s label on it (like `centrism').
*

The example of the PSoL in Brazil shows it is perfectly possible to
function as a broad socialist party with several organised militant socialist
currents within it. The precondition of giving organised currents the right to
operate within a broad party is that they do not circumvent the rights of the
members who are not members of organised currents.

What kind of left for the 21st century?

Broad left parties and democratic centralism



Since the beginning of the decade important steps have been made in
rebuilding the left internationally, following the working class defeats of the
`80s and `90s and the negative impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Starting with the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation conference
in Seattle at the end of 1999, an important global justice movement emerged,
which fed directly into the building of a massive anti-war movement that
internationally dwarfed the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s. These
processes breathed fresh life into the left, as could be seen already at the
Florence European Social Movement in 2002 where the presence of the Rifondazione
Comunista and the tendencies of the far left was everywhere. In addition, the
massive rebirth of the left and socialism in Latin America has fuelled these
processes.

However unlike the regrowth and redefinition of the left symbolised by the
years 1956 and 1968, in the first decade of the 21st century things were much
more difficult objectively, with the working class mainly on the defensive.
Multiple debates on orientation and strategy have started to sweep the
international left, leading to a reconfiguration of the socialist movement in
several countries.

Positive aspects of this process include historic events in Venezuela and
Bolivia (with all their problems), the emergence of Die Linke – the Left party –
in Germany, the Left Bloc in Portugal and indeed new left formations in many
countries.

In other countries the left redefinitions have been decidedly mixed. For
example the Sinistra Critica (Critical Left) went out of the Communist
Refoundation in Italy, over the fundamental question of the latter's support for
Italian participation in the Afghanistan war. In Brazil a militant minority
walked out of the Workers Party (PT) to found the Socialism and Liberty Party
(PSOL), over the central question of the Lula government's application of a
neoliberal policy which made a mockery of the name of the party. This splits,
for sure, represented a political clarification and an attempt to rescue and
defend principled class struggle politics. But the evolution of the majority in
both the PT and Communist Refoundation are of course massive defeats for the
left.

So, in many countries debates are opening up about what kind of left we
need in the 21st century. This is of course normal; each successive stage of the
international class struggle, especially after world historic events of the type
we have seen after 25 years of neoliberalism, poses the issue of socialist
organisation anew. It is absurd to imagine that it is possible to take off the
shelf wholesale texts written in Russia in 1902 or even 1917, and apply them in
an unmediated way in 2007. Even less credible is the idea of taking the form of
revolutionary organisation and politics appropriate for Minneapolis in 1937 [1]
and simply attempting to extrapolate it in a situation where revolutionary
politics has been transformed by central new issues (of gender and the
environment in particular); where the working class itself has been transformed
in terms of its cultural level, geographical distribution and political and
trade union organisation; and where the experience of mass social movements and
the balance sheet of Stalinism (and social democracy) has radically reaffirmed
the centrality of self-organisation and democracy at the heart of the
revolutionary project.

As we shall discuss in more details below, it is now obvious that the
models of political organisation and habits of engagement with the rest of the
left, adopted by some self-proclaimed Trotskyist organisations (like Gerry
Healy's SLL-WRP) were strongly pressurised by third period Stalinism and
organisational methods and assumptions inherited from the Stalinised Comintern.
No section of British Trotskyism was entirely unaffected by this pressure.

Against this background the split in Respect might not seem too unusual.
But there is something special about it, considered on an international level.
While there were no principled questions of politics involved (as there were in
Italy and Brazil), nevertheless the main revolutionary organisation involved,
the SWP, managed to alienate almost the totality of others forces within the
movement. This is a spectacularly unfavourable result for a revolutionary
organisation and one that cannot be explained by the myth of an anti-socialist
"witch-hunt". Something much more fundamental in politics is involved.

Revolutionary Socialism and `broad left parties'

As noted above, the experience of building broad left parties
internationally has been decidedly mixed; in some cases they have slid to the
right and ended up supporting neoliberal governments. For some on the
revolutionary left, what we might call the `clean hands and spotless banner'
tendency, this shows that attempts at political recomposition are a waste of
time. Far better to just build your organisation, sell your paper, hold your
meetings, criticise everyone else and maintain your own spotless banner. But
underlying this simplistic approach is actually a deeply spontaneist conception
of the revolutionary process. This generally takes the form of the idea that
"under the pressure of events", and after the revolutionary party has been
"built", the revolutionary party will finally links up with big sections of the
working class. With this comforting idea under our belts we can be happy to be a
very small (but well organised) minority and be sanguine about the strength of
the right and indeed the far right.

In our view this simplistic "build the party" option is no longer
operable; indeed it is irresponsible because it inevitably leaves the national
political arena the exclusive terrain of the right. In the era of neoliberalism,
without a mass base for revolutionary politics but with a huge base for militant
opposition to the right, it seems to us self-evident the left has to get
together, to organise its forces, to win new forces away from the social-liberal
centre left, to contest elections and to raise the voice of an alternative in
national politics. This is what has been so important about Die Linke, the Left
Bloc, the Danish Red-Green Alliance and many others.

This was the importance of the Workers Party in Brazil and the Communist
Refoundation in Italy at their height: that they articulated a significant
national voice against neoliberalism that would have been impossible for the
small forces of the revolutionary left.

More than that: the very existence of these forces, at various stages, had
an important impact on mass mobilisations and struggles – as for example
Communist Refoundation did on mobilising the anti-war movement and the struggle
against pension reform in Italy. The existence of a mass political alternative
raises people's horizons, remoralises them, brings socialism back onto political
agendas, erects an obstacle to the domination of political discourses by
different brands of neoliberalism and promotes the struggle. It also acts as a
clearing house of political ideas in which the revolutionaries put their
positions.

So with a broad left formation in existence everyone is a winner – not!

No broad left formation has been problem free. For revolutionaries these
are usually coalitions with forces to their political right. They are generally
centres of permanent political debate and disagreement, and they pose major
questions of political functioning for revolutionary forces, especially those
used to a strong propaganda routine. They inevitably involve compromises and
difficult judgements about where to draw political divides.

What an orientation towards political regroupment of the left does not
involve is a fetishisation of a particular political structure, or the idea that
broad left parties are the new form of revolutionary party, or the notion that
these parties will necessarily last for decades. For us they are interim and
transitional forms of organisation (but see the qualification of this below).
Our goal remains that of building revolutionary parties. It's just that, as
against the `clean hands and spotless banner' tendency, we have a major
disagreement about what revolutionary parties, in the 21st century, will look
like – and how to build them.

The functioning of revolutionaries in broad left parties

Broad left parties (or alliances) are not united fronts around specific
questions, but political blocs. For them to develop and keep their unity, they
have to function according to basic democratic rules. However this cannot be
reduced to the simplistic notion that there are votes and the majority rules.
This leaves out of account the anomalies and anti-democratic practices which the
existence of organised revolutionary currents can give rise to if they operate
in a factional way. On this we would advance the following general guidelines:
*

Inside broad left formations there has to be a real, autonomous political
life in which people who are not members of an organised current can have
confidence that decisions are not being made behind their backs in a disciplined
caucus that will impose its views – they have to be confident that their
political contribution can affect political debates.
*

This means that no revolutionary current can have the `disciplined
Phalanx' concept of operation. Except in the case of the degeneration of a broad
left current (as in Brazil) we are not doing entry work or fighting a
bureaucratic leadership. This means in most debates, most of the time, members
of political currents should have the right to express their own viewpoint
irrespective of the majority view in their own current. If this doesn't happen
the real balance of opinion is obscured and democracy negated. Evidently this
shouldn't be the case on decisive questions of the interest of the working class
and oppressed – like sending troops to Afghanistan. But if there are differences
on issues like that, then membership of a revolutionary current is put in
question.
*

Revolutionary tendencies should avoid like the plague attempts to use
their organisational weight to impose decisions against everyone else. That's a
disastrous mode of operation in which democracy is a fake. If a revolutionary
tendency can't win its opinions in open and democratic debate, unless it
involves fundamental questions of the interest of the working class and
oppressed, compromises and concessions have to be made. Democracy is a fake if a
revolutionary current says `debate is OK, and we'll pack meetings to ensure we
win it'.
*

Revolutionaries – individuals and currents – have to demonstrate their
commitment and loyalty to the broad left formation of which they are a part.
That means prioritising the activities and press of the broad formation itself.
Half in, half out, doesn't work.
*

We should put no a priori limits on the evolution of a broad left
formation. Its evolution will be determined by how it responds to the major
questions in the fight against imperialism and neoliberal capitalism, not by
putting a 1930s label on it (like `centrism').
*

The example of the PSoL in Brazil shows it is perfectly possible to
function as a broad socialist party with several organised militant socialist
currents within it. The precondition of giving organised currents the right to
operate within a broad party is that they do not circumvent the rights of the
members who are not members of organised currents.

The SWP's `democratic centralism' – national and international

Readers will note that the above series of considerations is exactly how
the SWP did not function in Respect. It is a commonplace that those who function
in factional and bureaucratic ways in the broader movement generally operate tin
pot regimes at home. There are strong reasons for thinking that the version of
`democratic centralism' operated by the SWP is undemocratic. This is not just a
matter of rules and the constitution, but there are problems there as well.
*

Decision-making in the SWP is concentrated in an extremely small group of
people. The SWP Central Committee is just 12 people, a very small number given
the size of the organisation. Effective decision making is concentrated in three
or four people within that.
*

Political minorities are denied access to the CC. At the January 2006
conference of the SWP long-time SWP member John Molyneaux put forward a position
criticising the line of the leadership, but his candidacy for the CC was
rejected because it would "add nothing" to CC discussions.
*

Tendencies and factions can only exist during pre-conference periods. This
effectively makes them extremely difficult to organise. In any case, political
debates and issues are not confined the SWP leadership's internal timetable.
*

There is no real internal bulletin and little internal political
discussion outside of pre-conference period. Real discussion is concentrated at
the top.
*

As the expulsions of Nick Wrack, Rob Hoveman and Kevin Ovenden show, the
disciplinary procedure is arbitrary and can be effected by the CC with no due
process or hearing in which the accused can put their case.

In his contribution to the SWP's pre-conference bulletin John Molyneaux
said:

"…the nature of the problem can most clearly be seen if we look at the
outcome of all these meetings, councils, conferences, elections, etc. The fact
is that in the last 15 years perhaps longer) there has not been a single
substantial issue on which the CC has been defeated at a conference or party
council or NC. Indeed I don't think that in this period there has ever been even
a serious challenge or a close vote. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority
of conference or council sessions have ended with the virtually unanimous
endorsement of whatever is proposed by the leadership. Similarly, in this period
there has never been a contested election for the CC: ie, not one comrade has
ever been proposed or proposed themselves for the CC other than those nominated
by the CC themselves. It is worth emphasising that such a state of affairs is a
long way from the norm in the history of the socialist movement. It was not the
norm in the Bolshevik Party or the Communist International. before its
Stalinisation. It was not the norm at any point in the Trotskyist tradition
under Trotsky."

John Molyneaux put all this down to the nature of the period and the low
level of the class struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. It is from obvious that this
is true. Its root cause is the conception of `democratic' centralism that the
SWP have.

We could note at this point that this point that the SWP's internal regime
is the polar opposite of that of a similarly sized, but much more influential,
organisation, the LCR in France, where the organisation of minorities and their
incorporation in the leadership is normal. In fact the SWP's supporters in
France have gone into the LCR and form a…permanent faction, Socialism Par en Bas
(SPEB) that would of course be banned inside the SWP itself!

Equally the functioning of the international tendency that the SWP
dominates – the IST – is dominated by a notion of `international democratic
centralism' in which the SWP takes upon itself the right to boss other
`sections' around, down to the smallest, detailed tactic. This, unsurprisingly,
results in splits with any organisation that develops an autonomous leadership
with a minimum of self-respect. So for example the SWP split on no principled
basis at all with its Greek and US sections in 2003 – expulsions that were
carried out by the Central Committee of the SWP, and only confirmed as an
afterthought by a hastily-summoned meeting of the IST.

There is an irony in all this. Up until the late 1960s the International
Socialists – precursor organisation of the SWP – maintained a sharp critique of
`orthodox Trotskyism', not least in regard to its organisational methods. IS
members tended to see Leninism as being, at least in part, `responsible' for
Stalinism, and instead counterposed `Luxemburgism' against `toy Bolshevism'.
After the May-June events in France, Tony Cliff adopted Leninism and wrote a
three-volume biography of Lenin to justify this. The irony consists in the fact
that the version of Leninism that Cliff adopted became, over time, clearly
marked by the bowdlerised version of Leninism that the IS originally rejected.

Opposed conceptions of the left

There is a false conception of the configuration of the workers movement
and the left, a misreading of ideas from the 1930s, that is common in some
sections of the Trotskyist movement. This `map' sees basically the working class
and its trade unions, the reformists (Stalinists), various forms of `centrism'
(tendencies which vacillate between reform and revolution) and the revolutionary
marxists – with maybe the anarchists as a complicating factor. On the basis of
this kind of map, Trotsky could say in 1938 "There is no revolutionary tendency
worthy of the name on the face of the earth outside the Fourth International (ie
the revolutionary marxists – ed)".

If this idea was ever operable, it is certainly not today. The forms of
the emergence of mass anti-capitalism and rejection of Stalinism and social
democracy has thrown up a cacophony of social movements and social justice
organisations, as well as a huge array of militant left political forces
internationally. This poses new and complex tasks of organising and cohering the
anti-capitalist left. And this cannot be done by building a small international
current that regards itself as the unique depository of Marxist truth and
regards itself as capable of giving the correct answer on every question, in
every part of the planet (in one of its most caricatured forms, by publishing a
paper that looks suspiciously like Socialist Worker and aping every tactical
turn of the British SWP).

The self definition of the Fourth International and Socialist resistance
is very different to that. We have our own ideas and political traditions, some
of which we see as essential. But we want to help refound the left, together
with others, incorporating the decisive lessons of feminism and
environmentalism, in a dialogue with other anti-capitalists and militant
leftists. One that doesn't start by assuming that we are correct about
everything, all-knowing and have nothing to learn, especially from crucial new
revolutionary experiences like the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

Today the `thin red line of Bolshevism' conception of revolutionary
politics doesn't work. This idea often prioritises formal programmatic
agreement, sometimes on arcane or secondary questions, above the realities of
organisation and class struggle on the ground. And it systematically leads to
artificially counterposing yourself to every other force on the left.

Against this template, the SWP is Neanderthal, a particular variant of the
dogmatic-sectarian propagandist tradition that has been so dominant in Britain
since the early 20th century. It is time that its members demanded a rethink.

Postscript: `Leninism'

In his interview on Leninism in International Viewpoint, Daniel Bensaid
points out that the word itself emerged only after the death of Lenin, as part
of a campaign to brutally `Bolshevise' the parties of the Comintern – ie
subordinate them to the Soviet leadership.

For us the name, the word, is unimportant. What is important is to
incorporate what is relevant today in the thinking of great socialist thinkers
like Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci. Lenin was far from being a dogmatist
on organisational forms; from him we retain major aspects of his theoretical
conquests on imperialism and national self-determination, the self-organisation
of the working class, the notions of revolutionary crisis and strategy, and his
critique of the bureaucracy in the workers movement and social democratic
reformism.

All these great thinkers were prepared to change their forms of
organisation to suit the circumstances; the unity of revolutionary tendencies is
not guaranteed by organisational forms, but by programme and a shred vision of
the revolutionary process. Thus we reject the idea that by our ideas about left
regroupment we are `abandoning Leninism', any more than we are abandoning
Trotskyism or what is relevant in the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. What we are
abandoning, indeed have long abandoned, is the template method that sees
Leninism as a distinct set of unvarying organisational forms.

We repeat: some of these organisational forms, including a monopoly of
decision-making by a tiny central group with special privileges (often of secret
information and un-minted discussion) – came from a beleaguered Trotskyist
movement, that inherited many of its organisational forms wholesale from the
Stalinised Communist International.

You can't understand the Healy movement without the Communist Party of
Great Britain or the French `Lambertists' without the immense pressure of the
French Communist Party.

The brutal `Leninism' of the Communist Parties and the importation of
aspects of its practices into the dogmatic-sectarian Trotskyist organisations we
do indeed repudiate.

1 November 2007

[1] This is a reference to the American Socialist Workers Party, which
played a central role in the Teamster Rebellion in Minneapolis in 1937-8. The US
SWP led by James P. Cannon had a massive impact on British Trotskyism, not least
through Cannon's organisational textbooks The Struggle for a Proletarian Party
and History of American Trotskyism.




More information about the Marxism mailing list