The overall context
is one in which the working class of Western Europe has been subjected for more
than twenty years to a sustained capitalist offensive aiming to roll back all
the gains which were built up in the post-war period. This offensive involves
attacks on public services, the health service and education, the privatisation
of nationalised industries, attacks on welfare rights and job security, the
introduction of flexible working, deregulation, and so on.
This offensive began
in the late 1970s. It was the reaction of the capitalists to the end of the
post-war boom and the long depressive wave which began with the recession of
1974-75. The process known as globalisation also corresponds to this period. Its
function is above all to liberate capital and commodities from the limits
imposed on them in the post-war period and enable them to flow freely around the
world, concentrating capital, exploiting workers and the poor. In this period
capitalism has a more and more parasitical character. Profits extracted from the
exploitation of labour are increasingly invested not in production but in
financial operations of various sorts. Parallel to the capitalist offensive and
reinforcing it, substantial changes have taken place in the composition of the
working class involving the disappearance of traditional sectors which were
often the best organised, most militant and most politically conscious.
The material offensive against the working class has been accompanied by an ideological offensive promoting the supposed superiority of the market economy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union this has been reinforced by a whole discourse on the failure of socialism, leading to the conclusion that capitalism is the only game in town, that it can be tinkered with but not seriously reformed and certainly not challenged because there is no alternative, that you must not infringe the sacrosanct "laws of the market".
The discourse on the
market is of course bunkum
and can easily be exposed as such. Historically, the state has frequently
intervened in the economy to defend its own national capitalists and to regulate
relations between employers and workers. And today the state intervenes to
actively promote globalisation and neoliberal policies. However the offensive
centring on the "failure of socialism" has to be taken more seriously.
The balance sheet not only of Stalinism but also of social democracy and of a
whole series of radical nationalist regimes which claimed to be socialist makes
it urgent and indispensable to redefine a credible perspective of democratic
socialism for the 21st century.
This context of a sustained
capitalist offensive needs to be borne in mind because it has had a profound
effect on working-class organisation and consciousness, and this is the
framework within which the present recomposition of the workers’ movement is
It is important to underline that the offensive against the working class has been carried forward from the beginning by governments not only of the Right but of the Left.
In Britain the
offensive is associated with Margaret Thatcher who inflicted substantial defeats
on the working class and blazed a trail that other bourgeois governments in
Europe have tried, generally with less success, to follow. But not only have the
traditional parties of the Left not defended the working class, they have
consistently applied the policies demanded of them by capital. As Samuel Brittan
put it in the Financial Times (2 September 1999): "the
counter-revolutionary ideas were partially put into effect by the Reagan and
Thatcher governments — which for some people was enough to condemn them. In
fact the UK and US counter-revolutions started in the closing years of the
Callaghan and Carter administrations — Callaghan’s famous 1976 denial that
governments could spend their way into full employment was a landmark. The
counter-revolution has indeed been carried forward by the present Labour
This is entirely logical. For
several decades after 1945 social democracy’s role was to defend a capitalist
order in which the working class had made gains compared to the previous period.
Social democracy was associated with the defence of the so-called post-war
consensus, established in a situation after 1945 where the relationship of
forces was favourable to the working class and where the capitalists actually
feared revolution in several countries of Europe. This consensus involved the
development of the Welfare State, increased rights for workers, access to higher
education for working class children and a considerable extension of the public
sector. The capitalists could live with this during the post-war boom, which
also brought relatively high wages, low unemployment and strong trade union
But since the 1970s the message
of capital has been loud and clear. The season for concessions is over, we
can’t afford it, in fact we need to take back what we had to concede before.
In this situation the reformists had a choice: either stand up and mobilise
workers to defend past gains or do the bidding of their capitalist masters.
Unanimously they chose the latter. Any illusions that might have existed about
these parties having some kind of dual nature, being somewhere in between labour
and capital, were dissipated. In the final analysis the reformists have always
defended capitalism, in good times and in bad.
There were hardly even any
bleeps, apart from the parenthesis of 1981-83 when France's Socialist government
tried half-heartedly to pursue a slightly more left policy before being whipped
into line by the pressure of the market. European social democracy has been as
faithful as the Right in applying capitalist policies, and sometimes more so.
Gonzalez in Spain, Mitterrand and now Jospin in France, Schröder in Germany,
Blair in Britain and even the ex-Communist D’Alema in Italy have all pursued
policies substantially the same as those of governments of the Right. These
parties have proven not only to be of no use to defend the working class but to
be actually instruments to attack it. Nor have there been any significant splits
to the Left. Most serious opposition within these parties was defeated in the
80S. Former representatives of the Left have been bought over or have simply
capitulated to the dominant ideological climate, or else they have been driven
out or marginalised.
So in the first place these
parties have become bourgeoisified and in the second place nowhere has any
sizeable split-off occurred in reaction against this process. That is what
brings us to the conclusion that these parties are finished as any kind of
potential instruments for the defence of the working class. It would also be an
illusion to think that under pressure these parties could conduct another policy
in the interests of workers and the poor. They will bend and retreat under the
pressure of working class resistance like any bourgeois government, as we have
seen on occasions over the last period in Germany and even more so in France.
But when the pressure subsides they will return to the attack because that is
Of course, many workers still
vote for the traditional parties of the Left, seeing them as a lesser evil to
the Right. But in every country the level of working class abstention has
steadily risen over recent years. These workers are expressing a negative
rejection of parties which have betrayed them. Where they have been given the
opportunity to vote for a positive socialist alternative, for example the SSP in
Scotland, the LO-LCR list in France, or the Left Bloc in Portugal, they have
done so in significant numbers. It is also true that some activists who see no
alternative continue to be members of Socialist and Communist parties. But they
also can be won over if a credible alternative exists.
The Communist parties of Europe
were already in decline before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of
the Soviet Union. This decline has now become terminal. The smaller parties have
either disappeared or become marginal, often with less influence today than
Trotskyist or ex-Maoist groups (1). The larger parties managed to maintain
themselves in a weakened state, as in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece. Only
in Italy did the speed of the rightward evolution of the CP, which in fact
emerged as a new bourgeois party of the Left, playing the role assumed by the
Socialist parties elsewhere, produce a straight left-right vertical split
leading to a new mass workers’ party, the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC).
In Spain the CP was the backbone of the United Left, which appeared as some kind
of a left alternative to the Socialist Party in the 80s and 90s. In Germany a
peculiar situation arose with the transformation of the former East German
ruling party into the PDS, which has a mass base in the East and has made some
modest inroads in the West, drawing in some other forces.
There is not a lot of room for manoeuvre for the former Communist parties. In spite of their increasing autonomy in the 60s and 70s, much of their identity derived from their links with the Soviet Union. Cut off from the source, they have few choices left. They can become a junior partner to the dominant socialist parties, they can camp in a sterile opposition or they can be part of the process of formation of new working-class parties. Only in Italy has the PRC evolved in this way, not without some difficulty.
The French CP is providing a textbook example of what
happens when a CP goes into an alliance in government with a Socialist Party,
vaguely hoping to exert a leftward influence. It influences nothing at all and
only provides a rather threadbare left cover for the government in the eyes of
the diminishing layer of the working class that still looks towards it. Today
the opinion polls for the next presidential election in France place CP leader
Robert Hue behind Arlette Laguiller of the Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvrière.
In Spain, the United Left is in terminal crisis after zigzagging from voting
with the Right against the Socialist Party to forming an unprincipled bloc with
the same Socialists at the last elections, culminating in electoral disaster.
Hopefully something positive will emerge from its left wing. The leadership of
the PDS clearly wants to turn the party into a junior partner of the SPD,
although this has met with some resistance in the party.
Leaving aside the PRC, whose
political evolution is not guaranteed but which has moved to the left and into
opposition to the centre-left government, and with a possible question mark over
the PDS, the remaining Communist Parties are not going to be the motor forces
for new parties. This is no accident. Although these parties contained many
militants and cadres sincerely committed to a socialist transformation of
society they had long ceased to be the revolutionary parties they claimed to be.
Decades of class collaboration are not a good preparation for independent class
Faced with the bourgeoisification of the traditional workers’ parties, it is necessary to build new parties of the working class. What should be the basis of these parties? At different times in its history the working class has needed different kinds of parties. In 1864 the First International sought to regroup all existing working-class organisations, not all of them even socialist. Twenty-five years later, the Second International represented a step forward, both quantitatively in that it contained mass parties and qualitatively in that these parties were generally committed to socialism as their goal and were in most cases strongly influenced by Marxism. After the First World War a division took place between those who believed in achieving socialism through winning a parliamentary majority within the framework of the bourgeois state and carrying out reforms and those who believed socialism could only come about by a revolution, by creating a workers’ state as in Russia.
These options were
defended by parties who organised and influenced millions of workers. Even at a
much later period, in the early 70s, debates were taking place within the
workers’ movement on what strategy could bring about socialist transformation.
These debates took place against the background of such momentous events as May
1968 in France, the experience of Popular Unity in Chile and the Portuguese
Revolution. Even a party like the French Socialist Party called in the 70s for a
break with capitalism.
What is the situation today? The division is not between socialists who are for reform and socialists who are for revolution. The division is between "socialists" who have no other ambition than to run capitalism, and socialists who argue that there is an alternative to capitalism. That is where the battle lines are drawn. The so-called reformists don’t reform, they carry out counter-reforms. Therefore even serious reformists can be convinced of the necessity of a radical socialist transformation of society.
As a document of the Swedish section of the CWI put
it in 1996: "A new workers’ party will not mean the reestablishment of
Social Democracy. Even if reformist ideas, probably expressed in the form of
‘real social democracy’ predominate in the first stages, this will be on an
entirely different basis from the past. The only way to defend even the old
reforms is through militant struggle and the socialist transformation of
society". In an immediate sense, the choice is no longer between a
reformist perspective and revolutionary transformation, but between a serious
struggle for reforms with a perspective of revolutionary transformation or else
no revolution and precious little reform. Marxists today must not only be
advocates of a socialist transformation of society, they must also be the best
fighters for radical reforms.
That does not mean that in the
last analysis the debate between reform and revolution is irrelevant. In the
last analysis it is as illusory today as yesterday to think that we can achieve
socialism simply by winning a majority and using the existing state machine,
without dismantling the structures carefully put in place to defend the
capitalist order, without neutralising the inevitable sabotage and opposition of
the capitalists, without creating a new type of state. But to try and build a
mass party on those lines today is a bridge too far. Today after a period when
the working class has been pushed back, we have to rally forces and regroup,
defending the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism and starting to
move towards that objective by supporting working class struggles and proposing
measures which concretely improve the situation of the working class.
What is decisive is the centre
of gravity of socialist parties. No-one would dispute that it is important for
socialists to take part in the day-to-day struggles of working people, and also
to represent them in Parliament and in local councils. The question is which
predominates ? We have to have the conception that socialists in Parliament
should act as the expression of the struggle outside, and not the traditional
reformist attitude that the struggle outside is just a form of pressure on
The key question is how to move from the present situation towards the formation of new socialist parties. We have to start with the material to hand. There remain many members or ex-members of the Socialist parties who are still loyal to their socialist convictions. The same is even truer for the Communist parties. What happens in the unions is also crucial. Generally speaking, the rightward evolution of the reformist parties has been more than accompanied by the trade union leaders. But the unions remain instruments, even though imperfect ones, of defence of the working class. Many trade union militants understand that there has to be a political dimension to their struggle. In the past they naturally supported or joined the Socialist or Communist parties. Today this is less and less the case.
In France a whole
generation of militants has been left orphan by the shift to the right not only
of the Communist Party but of the CGT, the militant trade union confederation
that was and still is to a large extent associated it. There are also new
independent unions who have no party to represent them. In Britain for the first
time ever there is serious questioning of the links with the Labour Party. The
relationship between unions and political parties varies from country to
country, but in every case militant trade unionists will be a key component of a
In some cases people will come
to socialist ideas from a nationalist background, from the realisation that the
only real independence will be socialist independence, not only in Scotland but
also in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Corsica and elsewhere. There is
also the green factor, militant ecologists who come to the understanding that
you have to be red to be green, often in reaction against the rightward
evolution of the official Green parties, which in France and Germany form part
of governing coalitions carrying out neoliberal policies.
Finally, last but not least
there is the revolutionary Left, which represents sizeable formations in most
European countries, Trotskyists of various shades and ex-Maoists. To the extent
that these organisations, whatever their defects, continue to defend the need
for socialist transformation and because they represent organised militant
forces they have a potentially crucial role to play. But they can only play it
to the extent that they are able to grasp the need to come together with other
forces to create new parties and not just to see their own development as the
be-all and end-all of everything. As Trotsky wrote in 1934, "it is
necessary to see oneself not as a makeshift for the new party, but only as the
instrument for its creation". Unfortunately, in such a key country as
France, the possibility of using the LO-LCR election campaign as a springboard
for a new party has for the moment been wasted, mainly because of the absolute
incomprehension by LO of the need for such a party.
Having defined the type of parties that are necessary and the forces that can come together to form them we have to see how to bring them about. In this respect the question of political pluralism and democratic functioning is crucial. This has to be approached on two levels. In the first place, the experience of the workers’ movement in the 20th century has to be taken on board. Specifically we have to draw a balance sheet of Stalinism and re-establish the tradition of the workers’ movement up to the early years of the Communist International, of non-monolithic parties with the right of tendencies, currents, and platforms to exist. In this respect the influence of Stalinism made itself felt far beyond the pro-Moscow Communist parties.
The Maoist organisations which came from those parties did
not break from Stalinism. More surprisingly at first sight, but unquestionably,
it influenced the Trotskyist organisations who should have been its antithesis.
This can be explained in a general way by the pervasive influence of Stalinism
in the workers’ movement which affected even its enemies. More specifically,
the struggle to maintain small groups over several decades after 1945 faced with
powerful Stalinist and Social Democratic parties played a role. This situation
favoured authoritarian internal regimes where "democratic centralism"
became not so much a means of reaching decisions through broad democratic
discussion and achieving unity in action, as an instrument for sending orders
down from the top, maintaining ideological discipline and discouraging
independent thought. This was a perversion of the Marxist tradition. All the
Trotskyist organisations have been faced with the need to break from this
perversion. Some have broken more than others, and some not at all.
There is a more specific reason for pluralism. Generally speaking new parties have come into being not through splits in existing organisations. There is the example of the PRC, but even there the original split in the Communist Party was added to by not insignificant forces from other backgrounds, including Trotskyists. Elsewhere new formations have come about by assembling forces from different backgrounds. In Portugal the Left Bloc was formed in 1999 from an initiative by three groups, the Trotskyist PSR, the ex-Maoist UDP, and Politica XXI, a group of intellectuals from a mainly CP background. In Denmark the Red Green Alliance was formed in 1989, involving Trotskyists, a section of the Communist Party, a left Socialist group and a Green group. In Norway the Red Electoral Alliance was originally the electoral front of a Maoist party, which became a broader party in the 1990s, opening itself up to other socialist forces. In Turkey the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) was formed in 1996 involving Guevarist organisations, sections of the pro-Moscow parties, Trotskyists and others. And that is likely to be the pattern elsewhere.
Bringing together organisations from different
traditions, from different cultures as well as integrating many independents who
have often had negative experiences in unions and parties is a delicate task. It
calls for patience and tolerance. It necessitates a genuinely democratic way of
functioning, with guaranteed rights for different currents. This will also be
the only kind of functioning that will be attractive to the new generations that
will form the bulk of new socialist parties.
But formal democratic rights are
not enough. It is necessary to break from the mentality of groups who think that
they are right and all others are wrong, that they are the
revolutionary party. It is necessary to break from the attitude that other
socialist currents are enemy organisations. That does not mean that we do not
discuss out differences and argue against positions that we consider mistaken.
It does mean that we do so in a spirit of fraternal collaboration, with the aim
of achieving greater cohesion and unity in action.
In many ways the tasks that we
face today are similar to the period when the first mass parties of the working
class were established at the end of the last century, but with an important
difference. We are not starting from nothing. In between times the 20th
century happened. The working class has been through the experience of wars,
revolutions, Stalinism and fascism. >From these experiences lessons have been
drawn which have reinforced the original Marxist analysis of capitalist society.
All of that is relevant if we want to work out a strategy for socialist
transformation in the new century. That is why we think it is necessary to build
a Marxist tendency or tendencies within new socialist parties, to enrich these
parties with Marxist methods of analysis and the lessons of the history of the
workers’ movement, to better understand the world in order to change it. That
is what the International Socialist Movement aims to do.
To return to our starting point,
one of the lessons of the history of the workers’ movement is that the
struggle for socialism will ultimately fail if it is limited to one country,
that the struggle has to be international because capitalism is international.
That is why it is important for the SSP to develop the maximum number of
contacts with socialists on all continents and to support international
mobilisations against capitalist globalisation such as the demonstration against
the IMF in Prague in September. But we have to particularly develop links with
socialists in Europe in order to put forward a socialist alternative to the
Europe of the bosses.
In the medium term we have to
work towards the creation of an international alliance of socialist parties. Of
course there already exist international organisations, such as the CWI to which
the ISM belongs (2). No existing international organisation can expect to have
all the answers to all the issues that confront the workers’ movement
internationally. Nor is it viable to think that a mass international will
develop solely from or around one of the existing international formations.
Nevertheless we think that these organisations can play a key role in bringing
about a broader alliance of socialist forces, and we argue for the CWI to play
such a role. On the basis of contacts established over the past few months and
of a first meeting in Lisbon in March this year (3), it will be possible in the
next few months to take new steps towards more structured links between
socialist forces in Europe.
(1) Maoist organisations
developed in the 1960s as splits from the pro-Moscow Communist parties under the
impact of the apparently more radical Chinese Revolution and its leader Mao
Zedong. Maoism was never a serious force in Britain, but it was in other
European countries, and even more so in the Third World. Many of these
organisations have now disappeared, but some have evolved and play a part in the
process of building new parties.
(2) Apart from the CWI, the main
organisations are the Fourth International (United Secretariat); the
international tendency of which the British SWP is part; the International
Workers’ League and International Workers’ Unity, both largely based in
Latin America and best-known by their Spanish initials, LIT and UIT.
(3) The meeting in Lisbon, in
which the SSP participated, was also attended by representatives of the Left
Bloc (Portugal), the Red Electoral Alliance (Norway), the Red-Green Alliance
(Denmark), the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League, France), the ÖDP (Turkey),
Alternative Space (a left current within the United Left in Spain), the Galician
National Bloc and the Catalan Republican Left.
may also be interested in reading these related articles:
The Development of the SSP by
Frances Curran and Murray Smith
Towards a new Workers Party by Murray Smith
This article was presented as part of the discussion by the CWI Scotland on our tasks in relation to building the SSP as a new socialist party. Murray Smith is a former editor of the ISM journal Frontline. He is now resident in France and a member of the LCR.
following article written by Murray Smith appeared in Carré rouge n° 11, May
1999. Carré rouge is an independent Marxist journal based in Paris and edited
by François Chesnais. The article is included here because although it does not
relate specifically to Scotland, it deals with some of the issues involved in
Towards a New International
Today, the idea that we need a new anti-capitalist workers’ party is more and more widely shared and discussed. And for good reason: it corresponds to the needs of a working class which is increasingly deprived of political representation. An not only in France : all over Europe we find the same debates, and initiatives which go in this direction.
The question of the building of independent workers’ parties has been posed since the beginnings of the workers’ movement in Europe. But it has not always been posed in the same way. At the time of the First and Second Internationals, it was a question of bringing together all those who were in favour of building independent organisations of the proletariat, the only significant split being with the anarchist current. The result was the appearance throughout Europe of mass workers’ parties, more or less influenced by Marxism depending on the country, bringing together different currents and trends. If these parties were not explicitly reformist, it would be inaccurate to characterise most of them as revolutionary.
It was only subsequently, under the impact of the imperialist war and the Russian Revolution, that a differentiation took place between revolutionaries and reformists, leading to the creation of the Communist International and of explicitly revolutionary parties. Following on the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and of the state which resulted from the Russian Revolution, the Trotskyist current arose in opposition to the rise of Stalinism. It would however be a mistake to reduce Trotskyism to anti-Stalinism. Trotskyism at its origin represented the continuation, on the levels of programme and of organisation, of communism, of revolutionary Marxism after the degeneration of the Communist International. Subsequently, Trotskyism would come to represent both the continuation of these gains and the development of Marxism on a series of new questions, in particular the analysis of the degeneration of the USSR and the question of bureaucracy, fascism, Popular Fronts.
From 1933 on, the Trotskyist current set itself the task of establishing new parties. It wasn’t a question of creating «Trotskyist» parties (the concept didn’t exist at the time) but of bringing together the forces within the workers’ movement which were breaking with Stalinism and Social Democracy, on the basis of platforms which enabled them to orient correctly on the big questions of a period marked by the acute reality of revolution, counter-revolution and war. The possibilities were real, the political forces existed and in the 1930s Trotsky sought with great persistence to bring about new mass revolutionary formations. But we have to recognise, without much success. Trotsky himself attributed this failure in the last analysis to objective causes, in a period marked above all by defeats (in particular in an interview with CLR James, «Fighting Against the Stream», Writings 1938-39).
A long period of isolation
Of course, even in
difficult objective conditions, correct or incorrect tactics can make a
difference : witness the relative success of the American Trotskyists compared
to the errors and missed opportunities of the French and Spanish sections in
particular. We could also discuss to what extent the errors of many Trotskyist
groups during the Second World War, and the difficulties in coming to grips with
the reality of the post-war world, contributed to the weakness of the movement.
What is undeniable is that the enormous strengthening of Stalinism and Social Democracy at the end of the war and during the period of post-war expansion created conditions which left the Trotskyist movement isolated for a whole period. This situation began to change only towards the end of the 60s and has only changed qualitatively in the last ten years.
From the Libération onwards, during the misnamed «Thirty Glorious Years» (1) and into the 70s and 80s, the workers’ movement in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe was structured by the two colossi of Social Democracy and Stalinism : by the parties themselves, by the unions linked to these parties, by a whole network of associations. During this whole period, the Trotskyist movement, with its different components, sought to build revolutionary parties in opposition to the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties.
Trotskyism therefore had to exist for several decades faced with powerful Stalinist and Social Democratic parties which were supported by the majority of the working class. Thus Trotskyism was obliged to function as a left opposition, to demarcate itself on the programmatic level from the reformists and the Stalinists, while at the same time seeking to address from inside or outside these parties the workers and youth who followed them. The tactics varied, there were successes : not everyone failed to the same extent. But nowhere did Trotskyists succeed in building mass revolutionary parties. Today we really have to recognise that the reasons for that were objective. To say that does not in any way acquit the different Trotskyist organisations of the responsibility for their errors, nor imply that they couldn’t have grown more. It is simply a question of understanding that all their mistakes, sectarian and opportunist, had deep objective roots in their inability to escape from the fringes of the workers’ movement.
The mass of workers had not gone through experiences which would have enabled them to break with reformism and Stalinism. The attitude of the Trotskyist movement was determined by this reality. Cut off from mass practical activity as a movement (although individual militants could sometimes have such activity), reduced to the level of propaganda groups, each current drew its legitimacy from its critique of Stalinism and Social Democracy and especially of all the other Trotskyist organisations. This demarcation had necessarily an ideological character, each current having its «shibboleth», as Marx put it, its specificity which distinguished it from all the others, which founded its legitimacy, which justified its separate existence.
Things began to change at the end of the 60s. A whole series of Trotskyist organisations succeeded in growing to a greater or lesser extent out of the radicalisation of youth, and in particular of students and school students. Some of these organisations began from the 70s onwards to have a modest but real implantation in the working class. But no organisation was able to definitively show its superiority by demonstrating its ability to build a mass revolutionary party. For a very simple and definitive reason : it was objectively impossible to build such a party during the period in question. The horizon remained blocked by the weight of the traditional parties.
The context has changed
The situation is radically different today. It is different because the two bureaucratic apparatuses which dominated the workers’ movement for decades no longer function in the same way. Their decades-long domination had material roots. These parties were associated with the gains of the post-war period and those that were obtained subsequently : nationalisations, social protection, the right to health care, education and housing, democratic rights. In short, everything that made working people’s lives in the post-war period different from what they had been before the war. Not that workers obtained these gains without a fight.
The reformists have never handed out presents unless they have felt the
pressure from below. But for thirty years capitalism in a period of expansion
was able to make concessions in exchange for (relative) social peace. And the
traditional parties were considered by workers as in a way the guarantors of
what had been gained, as their parties, as useful instruments for defending
themselves and improving their situation. Social Democracy was associated with
the post-war conquests. And the Communist Parties were associated not only with
these conquests, but with the regimes in the USSR, in Eastern Europe and in
China which still exercised a force of attraction for many workers. Both
continued to define socialism as the ultimate goal. The idea of achieving it by
building on already existing conquests on a national and international level
These points are worth underlining. Workers didn’t follow these parties out of stupidity, ignorance or lack of political consciousness. They followed them because these parties represented the concretisation of a certain number of gains and the hope of real change in the interests of their class. It is important to understand that the loyalty of workers to their parties had a rational and objective basis. You only have to look for example at what were the gains of the working class under Social Democracy in Sweden or in Austria to understand that the social peace which reigned in these countries had a material basis. The relative impermeability of workers to revolutionary Marxist ideas flowed from the conditions of their existence.
There was also of course, the element of bureaucratic repression against revolutionary militants, especially where there existed powerful Communist Parties, but this was a secondary element. Today, what we have to particularly understand is that if the strength of reformism and the weakness of revolutionary ideas for several decades had a rational explanation, in a different situation workers can only become more receptive to the arguments of the revolutionaries. Indeed that is what is happening today, on a modest scale but unquestionably.
On the political level, as long as this situation lasted the possibilities of splits to the Left, of new parties, were limited. Where such splits did occur, from Social Democracy or from the Stalinist parties, none evolved towards revolutionary positions. Everywhere these parties were either reabsorbed by Social Democracy, disappeared, or (in particular in Scandinavia) crystallised as left reformist formations.
The situation began to change at the end of the 70s. The evolution of Social Democracy towards a role of simply managing capitalism is closely linked to the crisis which began in 1974-75 and to the offensive launched against the working class from the second half of the 70s, at different rhythms in different countries. The rightward evolution of the traditional parties, the fact that these parties were either leading the attacks against the working class or incapable of organising effective resistance to them, is decisive in order to understand the defeats which have been inflicted on the working class in Western Europe in the course of the last twenty years.
This evolution of Social Democracy was reinforced and accelerated by the apparent triumph of capitalism which accompanied the collapse of Stalinism. As for the Communist Parties, most of them were already displaying an increasing tendency towards social-democratisation. The collapse of the USSR has pushed them to the right, towards Social Democracy and in the last resort towards extinction.
We really have to characterise this evolution of the traditional parties of the working class as a process of bourgeoisification. We can discuss the degree of completion of this process, but the direction in which things are going is clear. It is no longer possible to characterise these parties as we formerly did, as workers’ parties, even bourgeois workers’ parties. They are tending to become simply bourgeois parties, with nevertheless a certain residual relationship with the working class, inherited from their history.
Can we talk about «reformism»?
Today it is meaningless to talk of reformist parties, for where are the reforms ? These are parties which apply without fail the policies of the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie, in alliance with classical bourgeois forces. The «reforms» which they apply are in fact counter-reforms, for not only do they add nothing to the gains of the working class, they systematically attack those which exist. We can even say, and their present dominance in the governments of the European Union underlines this, that faced with the crisis of the traditional Right, they are today the main instruments for conducting the affairs of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisification of these parties isn’t limited to the policies they apply. It also involves an increasing integration into the state apparatus, the boards of the big companies, the various foundations and think tanks of the bourgeoisie. It involves too a change in their social composition, which often goes hand in hand with new rules of functioning which increase the autonomy of the summits of these parties in relation to the base. On this point as on so many others, it is Tony Blair’s New Labour which shows the way, just as in her time Thatcher was the spearhead of the neo-liberal offensive. Quite logically, one after the other these parties formally abandon the objective of socialism. It is difficult to see how this process could be reversed, unless by a highly improbable influx of workers into these parties.
This evolution of the traditional parties has consequences for their relations with the working class. First of all these parties are being progressively emptied of working class militants. This process is not complete. For the moment, as long as there is no credible alternative, a certain number of militants prefer to remain in them for want of anything better. Next, an increasing part of their electoral base is tending to desert them. After expressing itself in a first stage (and still today) by an increasingly high level of abstention by the working class electorate, this disaffection is beginning to be expressed by a readiness to vote for political forces to the left of the institutional left. From this point of view, the phenomenon of the LO-LCR list in France, while perhaps more advanced than elsewhere, is not unique. The results of a series of elections show the same tendency at work in many parts of Europe.
The nature of the present challenge
This evolution of the traditional parties creates a completely new situation. We therefore have to start by getting rid of outmoded schemas. To paraphrase Lenin, of «formulas which have aged, which are no longer good for anything, which are dead and which no-one will succeed in resuscitating». So we will wait in vain for an influx of the masses into the traditional parties. By what operation of the Holy Spirit would workers join parties which ceaselessly attack them ? Equally we would sink into total absurdity by continuing to drone «SP-CP government». Not to mention «without bourgeois ministers». What is Strauss-Kahn (2), then, a workers’ minister ? That makes it more difficult to concretise the perspective of a workers’ government ? Certainly. But that’s the reality. To overcome the problem, it is first of all necessary for political forces to exist which could form such a government, for these forces to have mass support, for there to exist institutions of workers’ democracy on which a workers’ government could base itself. As for the practice of making calls on the SP or CP, which some people formerly presented as an expression of the united front tactic, it is also becoming irrelevant.
For revolutionary militants the perspective is no longer to seek to build revolutionary parties in opposition to reformist parties, with the idea of breaking away whole layers of these parties. Today it is a question of building parties not in opposition to powerful reformist and Stalinist parties, but to replace these parties which are abandoning the terrain of the workers’ movement. It is a question of creating new workers’ parties on the basis of the intransigent defence of workers’ interests. But also of rebuilding the entire working class movement on new political bases. Which means revolutionary militants taking on more and more positions of leadership : in struggles, in the unions, in the associations. That is in any case what is happening, and it represents a molecular recomposition of the tissue of the workers’ movement.
If the task is to build new parties, certain questions arise. First of all, what is the situation on the terrain, the context within which we have to carry out this task ? Next, on what basis can we build a party? Finally, what are the responsibilities of revolutionaries ?
First of all, what is the situation on the terrain ? An expression is often used by those who are trying to understand the present situation of the workers’ movement in order to transform it : that there is a «vacuum» to fill on the left of the institutional Left. That does describes a certain reality, but the term is badly chosen. It would be better to speak about a space to conquer. Because the terrain isn’t empty, but littered with the debris of the preceding period. The workers’ movement has not disappeared with the bourgeoisification of its parties and the rightward evolution of the trade union leaderships. There are militants who stay in the SP and CP but who remain loyal to their class, trade unionists, community activists. There are far left organisations : Trotskyist, libertarian, more rarely Maoist ; there are red-green currents. All these forces, plus the new generations coming into action, constitute the raw material for a new party.
The hypothesis that new parties would come into being through vertical splits to the Left in the traditional parties has been largely invalidated by experience. Only in Italy have we seen this type of split, produced by the violent swing to the Right of the PCI which was transformed into the PDS and which led to the creation of the PRC. And even there we have to take into account the rapid influx into this party of forces coming from the far-left, of unaffiliated trade unionists, of youth. In Spain, the PCE was able to initiate the formation of the United Left, a fairly heterogeneous federation, ranging from revolutionary currents to reformists tempted by an alliance with the PSOE.
In both cases it is a question of formations not yet clearly demarcated from reformism and Stalinism, fairly unstable, but which are workers’ parties, which a layer of the working class identifies with and is active within. It seems correct therefore that revolutionaries should be active within them and seek to influence their evolution. In France, we cannot exclude a left split from the CP. But in view of what the party represents today, such a split would have less impact than in Italy and the result would probably not be any bigger than the major far-left organisations. It has to be taken into account that the forces and the electoral base of the PCF more closely resemble the PRC than the former PCI. And its capacity to mobilise is probably less than that of Bertinotti’s party.
In France the responsibility for advancing towards the creation of a new workers’ party rests essentially on the far-left and especially on the Trotskyist organisations. Today the task is to work to bring together all the forces, all the militants who are ready to fight capitalism, and who actually do fight it every day, each in their own way. It is not a question of first of all bringing about the unity of Trotskyists or revolutionaries. That would be an ideological, not a political way of viewing the process. Obviously, any regroupment of revolutionary organisations which is possible on the basis of sufficient agreement to be able to act together can be a step towards a new party. But it is not a necessary passage, a stage that has to be gone through. The perspective is to regroup forces not around pre-established ideological criteria, but on the basis of the challenges of the political situation and the tasks which flow from that.
The main requirement : a real anti-capitalist programme
could be the political basis of a new party ? The essential task is to bring
together all those who refuse to consider that we can’t go beyond capitalism,
who refuse the new world order, who are ready to resist the manifold attacks of
the government and the bosses. We need an anti-capitalist party, which means
unambiguous opposition to the Jospin government which is a capitalist
government. We need a party which defends the unity and the independence of the
working class not only in France but on an international level, a party which is
therefore internationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist. The exact outlines of
a new party will depend on the conditions of its coming into existence, on the
forces that are involved in it. But it will not be a classical revolutionary
party, in the sense that Trotskyists have understood it up to now, that is to
say a party having absorbed a priori the lessons of the history of the
workers’ movement, of the first four congresses of the Comintern, of the
contribution of the Trotskyist movement. A living party would necessarily
include elements who do not define themselves as revolutionaries, whose break
with reformism is not complete. The differentiations which will take place will
take place above all in relation to the challenges and the concrete tasks posed
by the class struggle, not in relation to ideological cleavages.
Does that mean that the historic programme of Trotskyism is redundant ? Not at all. The fundamental elements of this programme are still relevant : unity and independence of the proletariat, opposition to inter-class fronts, actuality of the socialist revolution, transitional method, workers’ democracy, workers’ government.
The task of revolutionaries in a new party will be to fight to give this party the clearest and most advanced anti-capitalist programme possible, fighting for their ideas in a democratic and pluralist framework. The essential ideas which have been defended by the Trotskyist movement for decades can now be grasped by the masses because they correspond to their needs. The objective basis of reformism is in the process of disappearing. That doesn’t mean that under the blows of the capitalist crisis reformist projects and currents can’t take shape. It does mean that these new formations will be weaker, less stable than before. Revolutionary Marxists have therefore every reason to be confident in their own ideas and in their ability to take their class forward.
It would be completely wrong and potentially catastrophic to go into a new party in an «entrist» frame of mind, in a logic of faction against faction. Revolutionary Marxists can be like fish in the sea in a workers’ party which is rooted in day-to-day struggles, fighting around an anti-capitalist action programme, having as its objective a break with capitalism.
In a general sense, revolutionary organisations, large or small, are faced with a challenge. Either they will be capable of rising to the tasks of the hour, or else they will be condemned to go into crisis, to split, to be marginalised, to disappear. There is no future for organisations which proclaim themselves «the» revolutionary party, if there ever was one. As for those who simply consider themselves the «nucleus» of the revolutionary party, they show a little more modesty. However, Marxists don’t believe in predestination. There is no guarantee that a nucleus will become a party or help to build a party. That depends on the existence of a programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics whose correctness is confirmed in practice. And especially, for a small group, it depends on the ability to avoid like the plague what Cannon called «the political sickness» of sectarianism. Today the period is over when a Trotskyist organisation could content itself with existing and recruiting by criticising Stalinism, Social Democracy and other Trotskyists. Now Trotskyists will be judged above all by their ability to lead workers’ struggles and to build new parties which really defend the interests of the working class.
Today in France, we have to know how to take concrete steps towards such a party. We are confronted with an opportunity not to be missed. The LO-LCR list has appeared from the beginning of the electoral campaign as the only list on the Left which is independent of the government, as the only working-class, anti-capitalist list. Today we can add that it is the only list which has taken a position against NATO’s bombings and for the right to self-determination of the Kosovars. That further widens the gulf with the lists of the «plural Left» (3). It is therefore important that this list obtains the best possible score. But above all we have to see how we can take that as our starting point to go forward, to begin to provide the political representation that the working class lacks at present.
Hundreds of thousands of workers, youth, unemployed are going to vote for this list. Tens of thousands are coming to hear Arlette Laguiller and Alain Krivine. The participation in their meetings goes beyond the far left’s traditional audience and includes many trade unionists and a significant number of CP militants. What are we going to propose to them at the end of the campaign? To choose between joining one or the other far-left organisations ? That would be a fine way to ensure that the campaign ended with a whimper.
The stakes are obviously elsewhere, and they are high. What is needed is to propose a framework to work together after the elections, to constitute a force capable of intervening in all the struggles against exploitation and oppression. Of course we can’t create a party by waving a magic wand. Nobody expects LO and the LCR to announce a new party on the evening of the 13th June. Besides, in that respect the precedent of 1995 is not encouraging (4).
The differences, the divisions, the mistrust won’t be overcome overnight. But we can begin to advance towards organised collaboration, towards a front, an alliance, a framework which enables organisations, groups and individuals to participate. Without waiting for the result of the 13th June, but even more afterwards, it is more than time for all those who share this objective to act together to take things forward. The next forum organised by Carré rouge, on the 27th June, can be an important moment in this process (5).
Murray Smith formerly
edited Frontline, the journal of the ISM, a Marxist tendency in the SSP. He is
In France the end of the Second World War is known as the «Libération». The term «Thirty Glorious Years» («trente glorieuses») is commonly used to refer to the long period of post-war expansion.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is Minister of Finance in the Jospin government.
«Plural Left» is the term used to denote the governing coalition in France, made up of the Socialists, Communists and Greens as well as other smaller parties.
On the evening of the first round of the presidential elections in 1995, after obtaining 5,3 % of the votes, Arlette Laguiller issued a call for a new workers’ party. However, subsequently no concrete steps were taken by her organisation, Lutte Ouvrière, towards such a party.
The theme of this forum was «How can we lay the foundations of an anti-capitalist, democratic and internationalist party of workers (active and unemployed) and youth ?)». The forum was co-organised by several organisations, including the Gauche révolutionnaire-La Commune. LO and the LCR were invited. The LCR sent a delegation : LO declined to participate.