Our central aim…
Building a revolutionary Marxist party based on the working class is central to the political outlook of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, and it’s at the core of the DSP’s program:
“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 Democratic Socialist Party is to build such a mass revolutionary socialist party in Australia.” (Program of the Democratic Socialist Party, pp 63-66.)
We’re all united around that central aim, but how to get there? This same section of our program warns us that “it’s important to avoid empty proclamations and exaggerations about the stage the party has reached.” How do we grow? How do we reach the masses? How do we build a party that is both revolutionary socialist and has a base in the working class?
While not a complete and finished document, and not to be treated as a bible or a recipe book, our DSP Program goes a long way to tackling those basic questions, relating to how to get there, and repays regular reading by all comrades, to study it, and relate it to our current experiences and problems. The program must be a living one, constantly being checked and enriched by experience; it must be taken to workers and others in struggle by an active, interventionist party. One paragraph draws together some general observations about tactics:
“The party’s tactical proposals must be subordinate to and aimed at advancing its strategic aim of socialist revolution. The party must choose tactics that help to raise the class consciousness of the workers and their confidence in their ability to fight and win. In determining its tactical line, the party must take into account the existing political situation, the relationship of class forces, the masses’ consciousness, militancy and preparedness for action, and the influence and strength of the party itself.”
One hard-won lesson from our own experience over the four decades of our tendency’s existence and from our study of the experience of revolutionary Marxist parties in other countries is that there are no permanent tactics. And there’s no model of a party independent of time and space – independent of political circumstances.
Unfortunately, in recent years the majority of the DSP leadership has forgotten this important lesson, and have elevated one tactical approach, that of building a “broad party”, onto a pedestal, and are defending it as a permanent, necessary tactic on the road to building a mass revolutionary party.
The DSP has recognised in its own history and in the history of other revolutionary Marxist parties we’ve learned from that there are many tactical approaches on that road to 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 the first issue of your paper, for example, The Militant, in 1928, announcing your program.
- Unity, regroupments, and fusions with other political currents heading in the same direction are an important tactic. Or the possibility of reaching agreement, in the face of new political developments. Lenin’s Bolsheviks unite with Trotsky’s Mezhraiontsy in 1917. Cannon’s unity with the Musteites in 1934.
- Entry into another party, generally with broader support, with the goal of winning away some of the base, reducing the isolation, linking up with radicalising workers. The US Trotskyists entry into the Socialist Party in 1936, a successful entry that lasted only a year. Or the longer term entry of some Trotskyist groups into the British Labour Party. Some European Trotskyist groups tried entry into Communist parties.
- Broad parties…. Participate with other forces, in a broader unity, to participate in elections, or produce a newspaper, build a new party, on less than your revolutionary program.
- Coalitions or blocs with other like-minded parties, for contesting elections, or for wider and regular campaigning.
- The name of the party, what it’s called, or the actual form, is not fixed. This can change given changing political circumstances. Sometimes it’s best not to have “communist” in the name; sometimes we might have to dispense with “socialist” as well.
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.
Our experience with the ‘broad party’ tactic in the ‘80s
In the 1980s we formally broke with the entry schema we’d inherited from those who had recruited us to Trotskyism. In practice we’d departed from the “deep entry” perspective of the old Trotskyist group right from our beginnings. For them, entry in the ALP was a principle, not a tactic depending on circumstances. Any possibility of openly organising as revolutionaries was subordinated to keeping your ALP membership. Any tactic other than entryism was ruled out – it had become a strategy. (See my History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, Vol. 1.”)
With the development of our tendency in the movement against the War in Vietnam in the ‘60s and the radicalisation of youth we continued to pay lip service to work in the ALP, but knew in practice where the action was, where the potential recruits to Marxism were coming from. We prioritised the building of our youth organisation Resistance, the public circulation of our newspaper Direct Action, our activity in the campaigns and movements, and from 1975 running in elections as socialists.
In the ‘70s we were fully involved in the Trotskyist Fourth International, collaborating closely with the US SWP. We reoriented to the Cuban revolutionaries as a result of the Nicaraguan revolution, and carried out the turn to industry initiated by the SWP, but by the beginning of the 1980s were thinking more independently, reacting to the sectarian degeneration of the SWP. We broke with the SWP, and then broke with the FI. The ‘80s was a period of thinking and experimentation for us. We broke with SWP schemas, broke with FI schemas. We developed our analysis of the ALP, wrote down and adopted our own DSP program and many other documents.
We were also looking for new forms for organising, and looking at all possibilities for regroupment, or unity with other left parties: We had the exciting Nuclear Disarmament Party experience, a political break to the left of Labor on a key issue that drew in 10,000 members. There were broad united front campaigns against Labor’s Prices and Incomes Accord, the Social Rights Campaign and the Fightback Campaign. We had small fusions with the Turkish group Revolutionary Path, with Socialist Fight (Workers Liberty), and a group of miners in Rosebery, Tasmania. We had the experience of the New Left Party, attempting to regroup with the old Communist Party of Australia (CPA). We attempted to unite with the Socialist Party of Australia (now renamed the CPA), and ran Socialist Alliance election campaigns. We made various efforts to link up with left greens, initiating the Greens in some places.
The attempt with the CPA through the New Left Party project was the closest example to the Socialist Alliance project that the DSP is pursuing now.
The background was CPA complicity in the Accord (their then leaders of the AMWU initiated it), then in early 1986, a small move to the left by them, embarrassed by the disastrous results and the criticism. We grabbed the opening for regroupment they offered when they proposed the formation of a “New Left Party”. But the CPA didn’t move very far to the left, and once we started working with them they stepped back, realising that although they, and their allies, would have had a big majority in a New Left Party, we had the youth, and the energy, and principled politics, and could eventually have called the political shots.
We can also note the very right-wing nature of the NLP independent components that the CPA courted, and promoted. This was a move to the right by the CPA, for many of the CPA leaders a way to exit revolutionary politics, to finally dump Marxism, communism.
They called it off with us, and their project lost momentum, but a few years later they tried to restart it as they dissolved the CPA itself in 1991, but their NLP only lingered a few months beyond the CPA’s demise. The NLP project was couched in terms of a reach-out project for the CPA, a way to break out of isolation, become “broader”, but it served as a step to their eventual self-liquidation. In the ‘90s there were a few more attempts to build “broad left parties” to the left of the ALP in the political mould of the CPA’s efforts – Joe Camilleri’s Rainbow Alliance, and The Progressive Labor Party pushed by Bob Leach attempting to mimic the New Zealand NewLabour Party break from Labour.
Our experiences in the ‘80s were marked by openness and flexibility, looking for any openings to reach out and work with others. We tried a variety of new forms, tried all possibilities and gave each our best shot.
But we never considered it wise or appropriate to ditch our Marxist organisation in any of these reach out efforts in the ‘80s. And we didn’t stick with failures. In the end we ran out of possible partners for regroupment, and the launch of Green Left Weekly in 1990 partly represented this recognition.
As I said in my report on Imperialist crisis and the impetus to international left renewal to the DSP National Committee meeting October 5-7, in 2002, as we were contemplating that major turn to making SA the party we build:
“Those efforts in the 1980s were predicated on our political reassessments, breaking with schemas. Don’t convert tactics into strategies. Don’t get stuck with permanent tactics. Get clarity on the ALP, the big schema. It’s worth re-reading our documents from that period – our 1986 document on the ALP, and Jim Percy’s 1984 report on the NDP and elections, printed as a pamphlet, and there’s still a few in stock.
“This development, the SA 18 months ago, and our new proposals for strengthening it, should not be seen as a surprise, a break. They are in the framework we developed in the 1980s.
“And we shouldn’t conceive of it as our old party ‘dissolving’. As Jim Percy put it in his report to our October 1987 NC meeting (reprinted as the pamphlet Building the Revolutionary Party): Our party-building strategy is not a break with our past. The biggest political error we could make is to think that our party-building perspective is outdated – ‘Without the old party, there won’t be a new party.’“ (The Activist, Vol. 12, No. 14, October 2002.)
But alas, we succumbed to the very errors we’d been conscious of and warned about five years ago.
We got stuck in a schema. And we changed the justification to keep our schema going, at different stages of SA.
We made a mistake in 2002. It didn’t work. As a healthy party, we could admit our mistakes, and correct our course. We could move on, try a different tactic. But we did “convert tactics into strategies”. We did “get stuck with permanent tactics”.
The political context for our tactics
We were certainly very conscious of the importance of the political context when we decided to initiate the Socialist Alliance and take the further step with our Socialist Alliance tactic in 2002. Here’s a further section from my 2002 International Report:
“Our proposals – and our timing – are based on our appreciation of the real political and social situation in Australia and internationally. We observe whether people are breaking from the establishment parties, we look at the situation with other forces such as the Greens and we test our perspectives.
“We don’t begin from abstract projections, or crude sectarian schemas. We’re not sucking out our tactics from abstract formulae, a method endemic to so many Trotskyist currents. We broke with that way of doing things 20 years ago.
“We relate the facts, the actual conditions, to our tactics, and continually check our theory through engagement with the movement.
“That’s our method, the Leninist method. We begin from the facts, international and local, the balance of class forces, what sections of the class are in motion, the real possibilities. Too often the tendency of the small revolutionary groups, the Trotskyist movement in particular (also narrow Maoist groups that the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) so creatively broke from) get enmeshed in schemas (such as the entry schema).
“This method is characterised by a tendency to erect a rigid all-encompassing schema, based on a generalisation about ‘the working class’ as a whole, not looking at the many differentiations in the working class, trying to regroup or mobilise the sections, the vanguard, that are actually moving into motion. On the basis of the initial regroupment and step forward with part of the working class, we can use this advance to reach out to and mobilise and educate further layers, pull others along the road further.”
What was the political context when we initiated this tactic? What sort of period was it?
1. Firstly, remember that this period was still 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 unfolding in a capitalist direction; Cuba’s economy suffered special problems. Specifically, in the imperialist countries this meant the old Communist parties, mostly small and weak anyway, had a limited life. Some dissolved completely (as in the case of the CPA); many declined more rapidly. Only in a few cases have the old CPs been able to consolidate. This was a period of imperialist cockiness, braggings about the “end of history”.
2. In many countries there was also a weakening or a further clarification about the nature of social democracy, of Labour parties. There were real victories for neoliberalism, with many unions and workers’ organisations weakened or smashed. In Australia in the ‘80s we saw this dramatically with the Accord. This and other developments also prompted our party to re-examine what we’d taken to be the Marxist view of the nature of the ALP, something we’d inherited from our Trotskyist origins, which labelled the ALP a “bourgeois-workers’ party”. It led us to examine Lenin’s writings more carefully, and study the history of the ALP more accurately, so we realised the ALP should have been characterised as a bourgeois party from birth. In Britain, union defeats and retreats by Labour in the ‘80s and ‘90s led some of the Trotskyist groups to assess that the Labour party had stopped being a workers’ party.
As Phil Hearse wrote in “Militant, What went wrong?” in 1999, “With the Labour Party now widely seen as an openly bourgeois party, the question of a new mass workers party, a new socialist party, is posed directly.” (Links, No. 15, May-Aug 2000) Many of these comrades, especially those coming from “The Militant” tradition that had practiced entry into the Labour Party for many years (often quite successfully) now ruled out entry as a tactic, and contemplated tactics such as building a new workers’ party, a broad left party. The argument was that there was now “space” to the left of Labour.
3. This period also saw the rise of the Greens. The Green parties exhibited a range of politics, some quite left, others very rightwing, varying from country to country and within countries. But 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.
4. It was also the period of impressive campaigns against globalisation around the world. From the Seattle demonstration [December 1999] through multiple demonstrations in Europe, and the World Social Forums initiated in Brazil and hosted in other countries also. These indicated a radicalisation, but often also exhibited a confusion or hostility about the need for building revolutionary parties, with the antiparty strictures of the WSF, and the NGOs and right-wing parties in control.
As the DSP was contemplating our “bold step” to become just a tendency in the Socialist Alliance, I wrote an article in The Activist (Vol. 12, No. 19, Dec 2002), which we subsequently published in Links 23 with the title, Looking backward, looking forward – Pointers to building a revolutionary party. It repeated many of the points made in my October 2002 NC report. It looked at the political background to our new party move – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the exposure of social democracy, and also “at the same time, there has been the huge upsurge around the world of the movement against neoliberal globalisation. The political pace had been picking up since the mid-1990s, and the movement itself dramatically burst into international consciousness at Seattle in 1999.
“The developing movement was not buried, not cowed by the September 11 terrorist attack and imperialism’s ghoulish response. The new activists were not fooled by imperialism’s “anti-terrorist” war drive. The mobilisations have been even bigger, especially in Southern Europe, in Spain, France, and Italy. Even before Bush could start his all-out war on Iraq, the demonstrations have been absolutely huge and inspiring – 400,000 London, 300,000 in New York and San Francisco, a million in Florence.”
Our tactical boldness was very much based on our positive assessment of the developing political situation. But it’s interesting re-reading this article in the light of subsequent developments. We can note the changes in the political circumstances; the expected upsurge of radicalisation did not occur. We can also note the DSP’s departure from the tactical flexibility and the party-building basics that I reiterated in that article, “What lessons have we learned about what sort of revolutionary party is needed, and how it might be built.” It was arguing to give the new tactic a go, but argued for “No permanent tactics”.
Our initiative for the Socialist Alliance in 2001, and its extension in 2002-03 to “the party we build” was based on both these general assessments of the local and international political circumstances, and also some specific circumstances:
1. Our assessment of the upsurge in the movements of the previous few years in Australia – Defending the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998, the campaign for East Timor’s independence, the anti-racist campaign against Pauline Hanson, the successful blockade of the World Economic Forum on September 11-13 in 2000.
2. Some specific circumstances relating to the left in Australia, in particular the changing approach of the International Socialist Organisation to electoral work (based on the change in their parent group, the SWP in the UK). At the time the ISO was the second strongest left organisation after ourselves. This change opened the possibility of proposing an electoral alliance.
3. Some specific international experiences that we looked to, especially that of the Scottish Socialist Party. Based on their leading role in the campaign against the Poll Tax, Scottish Militant Labour was able to form the broader Scottish Socialist Alliance, then Scottish Socialist Party, and get Tommy Sheridan elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as a Glasgow representative.
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 that was considered by Marxists in many advanced capitalist countries over the past decade. Where the workers’ movement and explicit Marxist parties were weak, it was seen as a tactic that could take advantage of changing circumstance, respond to upsurges, and benefit from the further exposure of 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, testing out, this tactic.
Our party had left the Fourth International in 1986, but even on leaving had 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 of their initial hostility about our departure died down, we were able to establish that sort of relationship, and from the ‘90s 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 anti-capitalist, 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 thus 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. And also there’s the pressure of the FI searching for a new meaning for the FI itself, and the general 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.
Even in the case of the Fourth International, when 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 persisted in for far too long. It was proposed by Trotsky in the difficult conditions of the ‘30s, “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 WWII, 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. It proved disastrous for most of the Trotskyist groups.
Having finally broken free of Pablo and the entry “principle” in the ‘60s, and responding to the youth radicalisation, the colonial revolution, and the campaign against the Vietnam War, the majority of the FI got caught 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.
We also experienced the “Turn to industry” schema of the US SWP under Jack Barnes. From a short-term tactic he elevated it to the all-encompassing, ever-deepening, strategy. This turn was initiated by the US SWP in the late 1970s, and followed by others in the FI, including our own party, still in the FI at the time. The arguments for the turn were based on the prediction of a working-class upsurge in the advanced capitalist countries, of which there were some signs. In this scenario, the working class, especially in the US, would move to centre stage, and revolutionaries would have to be alongside workers in the coming struggles. 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 to quickly step up our political work among students, and in the varied campaigns and movements. But the US SWP refused to face facts, persisted in their 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 – their refusal to face facts, and all the political distortions that flowed. (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.)
My international report to the January 2001 DSP Congress recognised some of the negative sides of the renewal processes and the interest in broad parties, 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. (e.g., Liverpool ex-Militant group; the Socialist Democracy Group; Solidarity in the US, the New Socialist Group in Canada.)”
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. It noted that: “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.” (Renewing the International Socialist Movement – International Work of the DSP. DSP Congress, January 2001 By John Percy, The Activist – Vol. 11, No, 1, Jan 2001)
Lessons from some recent experiences
Comrades in the FI, and others, have had varied experiences in trying to build broad parties in recent years. There have been instructive experiences in Scotland, England, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Brazil, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere. Some experiences have been positive, some have been inconclusive, some have been disastrous.
It’s not that we can draw a broad generalisation that “All broad left party efforts are misguided.” Rather, we should be assessing with which broad left parties or coalitions was it correct for revolutionary Marxists to give it a try with? And what provisos should we include in any arrangements for unity? And when should we join, and when should we leave such formations? And what lessons for Marxist tactics might we be able to draw from these new experiences, building on the previous tactical experiences of Marxist parties over the decades?
We’re not in the position of cheering when broad left parties fail, or collapse disastrously (although there’s been quite a few examples of this recently).
But comrades in the Majority Resolution Faction seem to be in the position of cheering whenever there’s some mention of a broad left party or coalition, as though it somehow proves their line. Every hint of a coalition or left regroupment is seized on as an example of the relevance or importance of the broad party strategy.
Questions of unity and splits and coalitions and regroupments have been basic issues to address from the beginnings of the Marxist movement. If the revolutionary Marxists are not hegemonic in the labour movement, what tactics are needed to become dominant, and sometimes the central issue is how to unite.
But the “broad party” tactic/strategy being posed for us in Australia, and similar advanced capitalist countries, is specifically related to a particular objective situation, especially taking note of the “space” vacated by social democracy or Labor as they marched to the right, embracing neoliberalism.
It’s even more confusing if we generalise the “broad party” strategy to countries in the Third World as well. Comrade Pip Hinman for example at a PCD discussion in Sydney lumped us 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.”. 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 from 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 unless for good reason, the need to develop a viable political front, or the need to defend yourself against state repression and victimisation, but you don’t go underground unless it’s necessary.
The lessons from the actual experiences reinforce all our old lessons. Not that the “broad party” tactic is never appropriate. But the basic, general, lessons, which we should have learned from previous experiences of the workers’ movement.
- That it should not be a permanent tactic, it’s not a strategy.
- That we should not get stuck in the tactic until it becomes a strategy, a “principle”, a schema.
- That it does depend on the actual political circumstances.
The key lesson is, let’s try the tactic, if the objective and subjective conditions are appropriate, but let’s not get fixated on schemas. This is one clear lesson from examining the history of the old Trotskyist groups, the FI, in relation to entrism etc. It’s also the lessons we draw from our experience of the ‘80s.
Note also that we can’t be accurate in answering such a question as “What would the DSP do in such and such a country, in such and such a situation?” We can’t answer it even if we ask, “What would an individual comrade do?” Because the size of our own forces in the actual situation are part of the equation. There’s no fixed formula, independent of political circumstances internationally and locally, independent of the state of the class struggle, independent of the size and nature of other left forces, and independent of the size and political influence of our own forces, assuming we’re the revolutionary Marxists.
So we reject the “broad party strategy” as a general perspective. We also reject it specifically, in the here and now, in the current political situation in Australia (where there’s no upsurge) and not the forces (just us). But we don’t reject it as a tactic where it’s appropriate in the framework of a Leninist party-building strategy.
Scotland – Scottish Socialist Party
In Scotland we’ve all observed sadly the disastrous split and electoral catastrophe suffered by the Scottish Socialist Party. Many on the left in Britain and around the world had been looking at the SSP experience with hope.
As Phil Hearse put it: “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.” (Militant: What went wrong? Links 15, May-Aug, 2000)
But now those possibilities have been much reduced, the SSP is in retreat. 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. Their vote dropped from 128,026, 6.7%, to 12,572 across the country, 0.66% on average.
The SSP shipwreck has been especially relevant for us in 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’re 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, “who can be our Tommy Sheridan?”
But there’s been no discussion in DSP bodies on the SSP disaster, trying to analyse what went wrong. 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. We reprinted most of the relevant documents in a special issue of The Activist (Vol. 16, No. 6, Aug 2006), and most of the information is 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 we had put on the SSP successes.
There hasn’t been much published in the way of analysis of the cause of the crisis by the SSP leadership themselves yet. The main article so far, 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 (over 140,000 or 7% of the total cast.). (The Activist, Vol. 17, No. 5, July 2007)
But so far there doesn’t seem to have been a deep analysis of how the SSP, with a small mass base, and six members in the Scottish parliament, 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 that 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.
Now 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 disastrous 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, and 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, but cadres from a few other currents also. 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 fact, whenever a DSP comrade joined the SSP, they were frequently snapped up as a full-timer or organiser.
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.
While it lasted the SSP attempt at a broad party succeeded, to an extent. The SSP comrades leading it had a huge task, and did a great job, and probably part of their consideration was that it was just too hard to build both the broad party and the ISM as a Marxist core group.
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 come to consciously reject the idea of a cadre party. The Leninist party model is rejected. Certainly this became the view of one of the SSP leaders, Murray Smith, who for the last few years has returned to live in France and is on the National Committee of the French LCR. Murray Smith had developed the view that the revolutionary Marxists should not organise separately, that a Leninist type party was old hat.
In the wake of the debacle in Scotland I would hope that Murray Smith and other SSP leaders would be seriously rethinking on this.
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.
England – Socialist Alliance & Respect
The various efforts at building a broad party to the left of Labour in England never 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.
As Phil Hearse and Liam Mac Uaid 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 antiwar movement effectively sealed its fate.” (Phil Hearse and Liam Mac Uaid, October 29, The Activist, Vol. 17, No. 12, Nov 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 signaled to us here 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. The two most recent efforts at building a broad party in England – Socialist Alliance and Respect – have now failed spectacularly.
Over the last two months we’ve witnessed 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, antiwar activists, and sections of the Muslim community in East London and Birmingham.
This alliance has now spectacularly come apart.
The crisis was sparked by a letter from George Galloway, wanting some basic organisational changes and improvements – some of which had been raised by Socialist Resistance (led by the FI group, International Socialist Group) a long time ago.
There will be two separate “Respect” conferences on November 17 – the “Official” Respect conference, consisting mainly of the SWP and a few supporters, and “Respect Renewal” gathering nearly everyone else in Respect. (And to emphasise the disunity of the British left, on that same day there’s also the Socialism 2007 conference of the Socialist Party-CWI, and also a conference of the Labour Representation Committee, lefts still orienting to the Labour Party.)
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 they were in alliance with Galloway, the SWP defended all this. Any successful new left party would need to be thoroughly democratic, with full accountability, no space for special privileges or automatic control by one group.
The SWP has made huge errors, and lost authority, and members. It was certainly the overwhelmingly largest political organisation in Respect, but insisted on its tight control. It might end up with the Respect name after the “official” Respect conference, but it will be clear to everyone that it’s just the SWP, masquerading as Respect. In both Socialist Alliance and Respect, it looks as though the immediate cause of the failure has been the sectarianism and ham-fisted organisational methods of the British Socialist Workers Party. 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 gets ostracised, called anti-Leninists or permanent factionalists, and fairly soon is forced out of the party.
So there’s no disputing the sectarianism, and the stupidity, 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 are concluding. It’s proof maybe that the SWP leadership do not understand much at all about Leninism.
Some on the left are still hoping that Respect without the SWP can develop into the broad left party to the left of Labour. (Indeed, some are arguing that it stands a better chance without the SWP.)
Alan Thornett and John Lister from Socialist Resistance are on the old Respect National Council, (SR had been part of a grouping, the Respect Party Platform, trying to get Respect to act more like a party, with its own newspaper, for example) and are backing the call for Respect Renewal. Alan Thornett argues that the “objective conditions that created Respect are still objectively there… space to the left of Labour.” But it’s likely that the prospects of getting such a party off the ground have been set back for a long while, after the succession of failures.
Perhaps Respect Renewal might be able to draw in the forces around the Communist Party of Britain and its paper The Morning Star. But without the largest group on the British left, the SWP, it will be hard going.
Moreover, the next largest group, the SP/CWI, has its own broad party project, the “Campaign for a New Workers Party” (CNWP). The second conference of the SP’s Campaign for a New Workers Party was held in London in May 2007, with 250-280 present. This was smaller than the founding conference that took place in 2006. They have gathered 2500 signatures to their founding charter, but the CNWP has little life outside the SP, and unionists who have signed the charter aren’t actively involved.
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, another Labour Party, or a new Labour Party, or the Old Labour Party to take the space of the one that has retreated, sold out.
An article by Andrew Johnson on the website 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 2005. http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/OnlinePublications.htm#New%20workers%20party)
France – LCR
For the past decade the Fourth International have had the perspective of trying to build anti-capitalist parties or alliances. The French LCR is the largest section of the FI, and effectively 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.
On the electoral arena the LCR had confronted the larger French CP, with a shrinking but still significant working-class base, shrinking electoral support, and committed to a governmental bloc with the Socialist Party.
The LCR also confronted the problem of another Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), that was more 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 still 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 French 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 Oliver 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.
The 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 itself 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% Bove 1.3% LO: 1.3%. Greens: 1.6% PT: 0.3%
More importantly 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. 4000 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 have 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’re proposing to launch a new party – around themselves, and with their clear principled politics. But this new party isn’t going to satisfy the proponents of the “broad party” strategy within their ranks such as Murray Smith.
In an article he circulated just before the 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 concretising 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”, The Activist, Vol. 17, No. 6, July 2007) Murray Smith is still in the framework where he thinks broad left parties are universally the way to go. In fact this article reads as very dated. It might have had some credibility 3-4 years ago, but doesn’t seem to have adjusted to developments of recent years. Like our majority, his hopes are set on a tactic that hasn’t proved a universal panacea for the different situations of the left.
Andy Newman, a former SWP member who suffered from the sectarian role of the SWP in basically closing down the Socialist Alliance, runs the Socialist Unity Network (and blog, that has provided very useful information and documents and discussion during the Respect split) and is a strong proponent of the “broad party” strategy. He also was skeptical about the LCR’s post-election call for a new party in a July 4, 2007 email: “unfortunately, it seems to me that the LCR appeal is couched in terms almost designed to exclude participation of the PCF… The initiative from the LCR should be welcomed, responsibility lies with the PCF to participate in negotiations without being deterred by the LCR’s pre-conditions. But it is far from clear whether the LCR leadership are serious about living up to the rhetoric.”
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 leadership, 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.
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. These alliance have enabled the left to get some modest parliamentary representation. They have increased political cooperation on the left, and improved the left’s image.
The Marxist parties that are involved in these alliance 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 new electoral alliance in Greece, SYRIZA, has successfully pulled together a number of the far left groups around Synapsismos, and won 5% in this year’s election, electing 14 MPs.
Engaging in existing broad parties
In some political situations where the revolutionary Marxist forces are relatively small compared to the broad left party, it can be more accurate to regard it as an entry situation, rather than building a broad party, (unless the revolutionary Marxists have set aside their perspective of building a revolutionary party, and think that broad left parties are the only possibility for the foreseeable future.)
Perhaps this is the case with the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, and the PRC in Italy. In both these situations it probably was the right tactic for the revolutionary Marxists to participate in these parties. But in these types of situations there are new dangers, different problems, and a key question becomes, knowing when to leave!
In both Brazil and Italy there have been some terrible developments. The broad party veered to the right, became the government, or participated in the government. The Marxist forces got too comfortable, some started adapting, relinquished their principles, became part of the government.
Perhaps the problem of the comrades who became entranced with the large party, and went along with politically disastrous directions, was that they had come to thoroughly believe in a “broad party strategy”, and given up on the idea of building a revolutionary party.
Brazil – PT
At the outset the Brazilian PT was seen as a “broad party” project by revolutionaries who got involved. The Brazilian FI forces were quite large, and grew from their intervention in the PT. It seemed an anti-capitalist party at the start, led by former metalworker Lula, but is now very clearly implementing neoliberal policies, governing in the interests of the local ruling class and imperialism. This has led to a split in the FI forces. The majority are still part of the PT government. The minority led by Heloísa Helena left the PT, and with other groups formed a new coalition party, the Socialism and Freedom Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, P-SOL). Now it seems the majority have left the FI, continuing to go along with Lula’s neoliberal policies.
The entry has resulted in the absorption and capitulation of the majority of the FI forces. The tactic became the 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.
Italy – PRC
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 they won 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.
Germany – Left Party
The newly formed Left Party in Germany is in general a positive step. It unites the left forces in the east – the PDS, coming from the progressive remnants of the old ruling Socialist Equality Party of Germany – and the west, the Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG), a left split from social democracy led by former SPD president Oskar Lafontaine.
It’s probably tactically correct to enter into the new united party, as many of the Trotskyist groups have done – the IST supporters, in 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 sectarian/abstentionist mistake, but it has written a document asking the question: “Broad parties – A universal goal in organisational construction?” which was presented to the FI’s International Committee meeting in January 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. It concluded:
“Moreover, we don’t see it as useful to apply a universal tactic of building ‘broad’ parties, ‘anti-neoliberal’ parties or ‘anti-capitalist’ parties. Often such tactics have been blown up into strategies, which – in the best of cases – have proven to be mere chimeras when they encounter the reality of concrete traditions, the evolution and perspectives of the actual workers’ movement in the different countries. In the worst of cases, schemas are imposed on the sections, causing them quite a few problems. We do not oppose identical or corresponding tactics on the international level on principle, but we think they are useful only in the context of an international upturn in workers’ struggles, (i.e., in the years 1917-23, 1934-37, 1968-74/5). In defensive periods the differences between workers’ movements in different countries are much sharper, which makes the application of a common tactic difficult.”
Holland – Socialist Party
The Dutch Socialist Party (“Tomato Party”) is a different case again. It was founded in 1972 by Maoists, but long ago eliminated all traces of Marxism and minimised ideology to project a broad appeal. They focussed on local issues, and support has gradually grown. Most of the far left groups have now joined the SP.
Doug Lorimer and I visited the SP in 1997, and were struck by the bland politics they 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. They have a very bland web page.
Bryan Evans from the Canadian Socialist Project reported in their magazine Relay on the SP’s recent electoral success: “On Nov. 22 2006, the party almost tripled its number of seats in the Lower House, Parliament’s main legislative chamber, to twenty-five and overtook the historic libertarians (Party for Freedom and Democracy) as the third party of the Netherlands, both in seats and membership. In the country’s two largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the party came second overall winning 18.4% and 17.6% respectively. In the industrial centre of Eindhoven the vote share totaled 23.8%.”
Evans concludes: “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 nationalisation 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.)
Lessons, and the range of dangers
The DSP’s initiative in 2001 to launch the Socialist Alliance did not take place in a vacuum. We were looking at the local and international political situation, and optimistically expecting an upsurge in working-class struggle. Clearly we were wrong – this was unanimously recognised by our party at our May 2005 National Committee meeting.
We were also looking at other efforts to build broad left parties, especially in Europe, especially in Scotland with the Scottish Socialist Party. Surely we also need an honest and realistic assessment of the recent experiences on this front.
We certainly have a clearer picture of the difficulties, and a much clearer picture of the problems, and the dangers from this tactic.
Unfortunately the DSP majority leadership has not heeded either the realities of the objective political situation, nor the lessons and experiences of other broad party experiences of recent years. They’ve stubbornly persisted on with their tactic, in spite of the political circumstances, and in spite of recent experiences, and in spite of the arguments raised by 25% of the DSP membership.
All the recent experiences internationally of broad parties 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 does depend on leftward moving forces, a political upsurge, forces that could break to the left from reformist parties. In times of political downturn, 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 in 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 degeneration onto an anti-Leninist path;
- The danger of getting stuck in a permanent half-way house;
- The danger of substituting and masquerading as the broad party.
A danger – giving up on Leninist parties.
One danger of the broad party tactic is that you can drift into giving up on the idea of a Leninist party, either temporarily or permanently.
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, Leninism, as a result of the problems they encountered in sectarian Trotskyist parties. For example, some former US SWP members – Louis Proyect; Jose Perez – drew these conclusions directly from their negative experiences with the degeneration of the US SWP. (Links 23, Looking Backward, Looking Forward, p. 26-27)
After the Respect debacle, for example, Louis Proyect wrote: “I plan to look at the Respect controversy but am also interested in trying to figure out how these attempts at broader left or socialist parties keep going kerblooey. I suspect that the refusal to simply dissolve old vanguard parties is key.” < http://www.marxmail.org/msg32801.html>
Undoubtedly some activists confronted with the sectarian approach of the British SWP, either in the Socialist Alliance, or now with Respect, could develop similar conclusions, and think that what the SWP practiced was Leninism rather than a caricature of it.
Andy Newman, for example, also believes that revolutionary Marxists should not organise separately in broad parties:
“I have disputed that the type of party that the SWP is trying to build is useful, and I have disputed that there is a need to organisationally separate “reformists” and “revolutionaries”, because I argue that what we need is a class struggle party, not a rrrr-revolutionary party.”
And in an article in Green Left Weekly Nov 7, 2007, he wrote: “The argument of the SWP that revolutionary Marxists must retain their separate identity in a ‘united front of a special type’ has now failed in both the Socialist Alliance and Respect.”
Andy Newman frequently quotes Murray Smith (in the leadership of SSP, then in LCR):
“I am convinced that the role of revolutionary Marxists today is to build broad socialist parties while defending their own Marxist positions within them, with the aim, not of building a revolutionary faction with an ‘entrist’ perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise.”
Murray Smith and Andy Newman 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.
Unfortunately, some DSP comrades seem to have adopted similar political positions to these comrades. And the longer we go on with this “SA as our party” line in conditions where it’s not working, the more this sort of thinking will become embedded in the minds of DSP comrades, new and old.
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. So there’s the question of how long without a Leninist party can you survive?
Phil Hearse addressed the problem of building the broad party and recruiting to Marxism in his article “Militant: What went wrong?” (Links 15, May-August 2000)
“How do you put together building the SSP and recruiting to the Marxist current at the same time? This is a problem far from unique to Scotland, and in my opinion there are two thoroughly incorrect answers to this conundrum.
“The first is to say, like Taaffe and Walsh, [leaders of the Socialist Party/CWI] the key thing is to build the revolutionary party, and so solve the problem by suppressing it. Get out of the SSP, build the SML, put off or ignore the question of class independence and the political representation of the working class. This sectarian course would be posing an organisational solution to a real political problem. The dilemma of how to build a broad socialist organisation (in countries where that is posed and possible), and at the same time build a Marxist leadership current, is a dilemma which exists in reality, not in abstract schemas. The Scottish comrades have both to build the broad party and to win people to Marxism within it, just as Marxists inside Italian Communist Refoundation have to carry out a dual tactic. Complex tactics like this, full of dangers, are imposed by the state of the workers’ movement internationally as well as the state of the revolutionary left.
“The second incorrect solution would be to say: build the broad socialist party, give up on building the Marxist current. All the current debates about Leninism and democratic centralism have to start with this issue: is the specific and separate organisation of Marxism, of the forces won to the Marxist program, necessary or not? This means, in effect, does Marxism have anything specific to say, any program to propose, different from that advocated by broad (and very heterogeneous) organisations like the PRC in Italy or the United Left in Spain? I think the answer is obviously yes. And if so, then the Marxists have to organise themselves in a more or less formal current.”
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 theoretically justify a failed tactic, to convert it from a tactic to a permanent strategy.
Doggedness can sometimes be virtue, but on a wrong course it’s just stupidity.
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, but a principle for all times and situations. The DSP majority leadership has unfortunately also backed itself into a corner, defending the “Socialist Alliance as the party we build” tactic come what may.
The LPF, and in 2005 the NE and NC minority, was correct to strongly criticise the majority course of continuing with the SA tactic as our permanent strategy. But we’re also aware of one of the unfortunate consequences of our stand – the majority is unwilling to admit its mistakes, so is even less likely to pull back from the mistaken course. If we had kept quiet, perhaps the majority would have just quietly let drop the failed SA line, swept it under the carpet. But this would have been a disastrous course for the DSP – a revolutionary party that can’t honestly assess a mistaken course will never be able to address the even harder political choices it will have to make in the future.
Another problem when a tactic gets elevated to a permanent principle is that you get 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 for us, an objective comparison would show that we had more contacts, more GLW subs, more contacts at our GLW dinners, more comrades involved in campaigns and committees in the years before we adopted the SA straitjacket.
Conditions that would enable us to transform Socialist Alliance into a new broad socialist party don’t exist; the project has clearly failed. Those who subsequently became the majority tendency in the DSP discussion 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 gets developed.
The “any party worth its salt” justification was coined, 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, The DSP, Socialist Alliance and rebuilding the DSP cadre, The Activist, Vol. 15, No. 8 – Oct 2005)
This line has been entrenched as a “necessary” tactic in the majority resolution for this Congress:
“15. The DSP sees the struggle to build a broadly based anti-capitalist party as an important tactic in the struggle for a mass revolutionary party in this country. The creation of a serious anti-capitalist alternative, whatever its particular form of presentation (“red-green”, “real people’s party” etc) but founded on a complete break with class-collaborationism, can open the way to working class and broader social movement victories in the struggle against the capitalist imperative to make working people bear the costs of the system’s survival. The tactic is necessary in order to develop the forces needed to challenge the domination of the Australian labour movement by the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy as well as other bureaucracies within the social and environmental movements.”
There’s a danger that many little half-way houses get established, fail to fulfill their hopes of winning the masses, and remain dotted around 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, tiny remnants already scattered around – Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party; the Socialist Alliance; and the Respect split could leave a few more.
In Australia the Progressive Labor Party is a skeleton, but still outpolls the SA in Newcastle.
A danger – substituting and masquerading
The Socialist Alliance in Australia might have faced the danger of becoming a permanent half-way house/dead end like the PLP, but there were far too few active independents in proportion to the DSP, so that everyone else on the left knows exactly what it is – the DSP putting on SA’s clothes. It’s a masquerade – pretending to be the broad left, pretending to be left reformist/class struggle/anti-neoliberal/anti-capitalist, when you’re a Marxist revolutionary.
We’ve become convinced of the broad party tactic, so convinced that it’s now our permanent strategy, which we apply even though the objective and subjective conditions might not be conducive to it. SA as our short-cut to the masses hasn’t worked, but we persist.
Then, to satisfy ourselves (or to defy the uncomfortable predictions of dissenting comrades,) we substitute. We’re the worst offender in this regard that I’m aware of on the international left. We masquerade publicly as the Socialist Alliance, when nearly all the energy and initiative and leadership is supplied by the revolutionaries, e.g., the DSP.
We have to indulge in hype and exaggeration and outright lies to maintain the fiction, but it has limited effect. It might con a few newcomers to politics for a while, and it might be swallowed by a few of our international collaborators, who don’t check too closely, or individuals who are also pushing the “broad party strategy” fallacy.
There are several such fake parties, for example the SP’s one in Britain, but at least they just call it a “Campaign for…”, not a new “party”, when it’s clearly not; not an “alliance” when there’s no other group in the alliance apart from ourselves.
Five years ago in 2002 when our turn towards dissolving the DSP in Socialist Alliance was first publicised internationally it brought welcomes but also some warnings. Jose Perez on the Marxmail list stated that he believed the DSP leadership were genuine in their proposal, but referred to the dangers:
“The comrades in the DSP executive are experienced enough to understand that, in revolutionary politics, those kinds of cheap swindles and maneuvers aren’t going to bring any lasting gain. Were they to try it, they would capture themselves and a handful of others who probably would have joined the DSP anyways; but the nature of the maneuver is such that they risk confusing, disorganising and scattering a lot of their existing forces.”
This masquerading has ongoing disastrous consequences.
There’s the danger of entrenching a mistake. There’s social pressure in this direction. For example, the SA line has catered to and encouraged and facilitated a number of DSP members to a less active political life, to a non-cadre political life. They adjust. They think this is all that’s possible, (or what suits them, and therefore the Australian working class). And they adjust their theory, as well as their expectations.
It’s a dynamic that could be shaken if the political situation turns round, if there’s an upsurge. And we will try to broaden the horizons of such comrades, urging them to take an international perspective (where the relatively backward Australian political situation is put in perspective) and a historical perspective, where by better understanding the past they might be a little more optimistic about the possibilities for the future.
Our comrades get used to engaging in permanent hype and falsification. Events are always reported to puff up SA and prettify the SA as our party line. Comrades get mistrained, miseducated. The cadre crisis increases. More hype and exaggeration are required to keep the Potemkin village propped up. It’s a vicious cycle.
The masquerading permanently weakens Resistance, decreases the possibility of rebuilding, no matter how hard the Resistance comrades run. It’s a disservice to them.
It prevents us doing effective international solidarity work, especially with the Venezuelan revolution. This work is both our duty, as revolutionaries, and is an opportunity for recruiting to the revolutionary party. But we’re hampered, both because the “broad party” has a different attitude to revolutionary solidarity from a revolutionary party, and we have to expend time and resources propping up the SA façade, building two parties, since we drew back from the version of building the broad party that involved dissolving the DSP.
There’s also the danger that political errors are induced through persisting in the mistaken strategy. We were desperately looking for the mass upsurge to justify the course (as argued in the initial projections), so the anti-IR [industrial relations] demos are over-assessed, as militant, and the role of the ALP, and the role of the demos as an election tactic for the ALP is downplayed. It leads to an alliance with the Cameron and Oliver leadership in the AMWU, glossing over the actual decline and retreat of Workers First.
Some wise words ignored
In December 2004, Francois Sabado, the pen name of a central leader of the LCR, and of the FI, wrote a very sharp article on these issues. He was 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.
Many of these dangers and dead-ends outlined above were clearly warned against. We printed Sabado’s article in The Activist in 2004. We would all have done well to study it more closely at the time. We should read it now anyway, together with the rest of the debate. He concludes:
“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. François Sabado, The Activist, Vol. 14, No. 5, Dec 2004)
– The Activist was as the internal discussion bulletin of the Democratic Socialist Party