Monday 29 October 2007

What Could a New Party Look Like?

You can reasonably argue that the British left has been undergoing a process of recomposition and regrouping since the early 90s. Since then, formations and campaigns have come and gone that have, to some degree or another, brought sections of the left together on a political basis - the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, John4Leader, Socialist Green Unity Coalition, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, etc. And this is nothing to say of the various, smaller attempts at cohering the ultra left, so lovingly documented by the Weekly Worker.

Without spending time picking over the bones to locate the failures or the stillborn character of these initiatives for the moment, you could say there are two - at times complementary, at times contradictory - processes going on. On the one hand, there is the attempt by the left to reach out and rebuild a mass audience for socialist politics through the establishment of a mass workers' party (be that outside of the Labour party, or by somehow steering that body to the left); and on the other, moves to cohere Marxists around a number of revolutionary positions. However, it seems to me very little thought has been given to what any resultant formation is likely to look like.

On the one hand, this is a sensible position to take. Marxists are not Mystic Meg-types, who spend their time staring at the works of the old beards in the hope History will reveal them the future. We can say what we would like to happen, but this isn't the same as saying what is likely to happen. Given the balance of forces at the moment and our collective inability to build something durable and attractive outside of the Labour party that appeals to all socialists, let alone those who have yet to reach socialist conclusions, any new formation is far from likely to tick all the boxes we'd like to see ticked.

It's fair to say there's a broad consensus on the blogging left around democracy, accountability, transparency, participation, and the defence of basic socialist ideas. If anything, this consensus has sharpened as the SWP's attempts to bureaucratically enforce its will on Respect are repeatedly exposed to the full light of day. Quite rightly, socialists inside and outside the dispute are appalled by its mendacity, authoritarianism, and complete inability to work with others on anything approaching an equal footing. So, for many, it's unsurprising that commitment to this way of organising is a litmus test for a new left alternative to Labour.

But as things stand, a left alternative of this character is unlikely to emerge, at least initially. As many have noted, there are increasing numbers of unions outside of the Labour party without a political voice. This looks set to be exacerbated by the recent postal strike - regardless of the eventual outcome of the dispute, it is not likely the membership will accept continued CWU support for a government who has nothing but contempt for postal workers. If these unions do get their heads together and start venturing into the broader political arena, chances are their alternative will be bureaucratic and subordinate to the sectional and administrative interests of those unions. Bob Crow may be a good class fighter, but he wasn't exactly known for his strident opposition to the SLP witch hunt when he was a prominent member. This is not the only problem. Not only will you have the unions wanting to keep a tight grip on their new vehicle, it will inevitably attract those for who treat the labour movement as a career ladder. Remember those hideous right-wingers from your old CLP and union meetings? They're as likely to jump on board a new party as any good socialist. Let there be no illusions - the struggle does not end with the setting up of a new workers' party. In many ways, it's just the beginning.

Of the second process, the process of Marxist regroupment, again a lot of Marxists are rightly holding out for an organisation that puts democracy at the core of its politics. A multi-tendency revolutionary socialist party that allows an open clash of opinions and factions is the only sensible basis on which revolutionaries in Britain today can unite together in one organisation, while simultaneously being rooted in our class. The failure of the smaller, more 'open' groups, such as the AWL, CPGB/Weekly Worker, and the comrades around the Campaign for a Marxist Party to cohere themselves into anything more united, despite the ritual exchange of dozens of polemics, must ultimately lie in their failure to have a common class orientation. Only through joint work over a period will the real basis for a lasting unity be laid.

Dave Osler has recently laid out what he'd like a 'rational Marxist current' to look like. Again, it is to be democratic and open, it is to eschew the kinds of certitude long characteristic of the Trotskyist tradition, aim to renovate and innovate Marxism, and engage with the analyses and insights stemming from other radical, though not nominally Marxist traditions. He concludes that "a modern Marxist grouping needs to be loose, libertarian, and Luxemburgist ... Members may belong to the Labour or Green parties, leftwing parties or no party at all, to whatever extent holding a card facilitates such tasks".

In my opinion, the kind of organisation Dave is holding out for is on a hiding to nothing. In the first place, to what extent would such a libertarian Marxist current be an advance on what we already have? The majority of internet-travelling Marxists in Britain regularly read and debate with each other, be it on blogs, discussion lists and boards, and journals. I would also like to think that every Marxist already pushes their socialist politics as they are doing their own political thing in their groups, unions, campaigns and what have you. In the second place, how could this libertarian Marxist current come together, and stay together? I suppose there is nothing stopping prominent left bloggers plus others convening a conference to explore this and set up a loose network, but in the absence of consistently working side by side, the current could be prised apart by the different concerns and arenas of intervention Marxist activists work in.

If you want an organisation that is consistently democratic, that demands accountability. Then you cannot escape having some notion of discipline, which of course leads back to those dreaded words: democratic centralism. I think it was Sartre who once wrote that Marxism was the inescapable horizon of our times. For Marxists, the same is true of Lenin's contributions on the party question. Revolutionaries shouldn't seek to emulate the Bolsheviks post-1921, or the much-maligned model Lenin argued for in What is to be Done? Our model should be the Bolshevik party that, in the midst of some of the most difficult work socialists can ever face, still managed to operate an open press with open polemic and open factions (some of whom had their own factional press). No one can argue this was not a disciplined party that did not get things done.

If you believe the orthodox Marxist view that the working class has to be organised as a political party in order to achieve its liberation, then I for one cannot think of a party structure more suited to the tasks of socialism in 21st century Britain. This is how a rational Marxist current should look, but as noted earlier, we can say what we would like to happen, but this isn't the same as saying what is likely to happen. Nevertheless, going back to Lenin, back to the experience of the Bolsheviks is an essential part of building what is necessary - a revolutionary working class socialist party.


Anonymous said...

The need for a party to represent the working class is clearer than ever, how this is achieved is of critical importance. Having attended the CNWP conference this year I was disappointed with feeling that comrades wanted to hide their Marxism and felt this would put off the average person from joining. I think if a broad party based in Marxism could be formed from the various smaller socialist parties, people would be won to this party initially not by accpeting the polemics and pamflets produced but by the actions taken by the party in support of the struggles faced by the working class. Indeed actions speak louder than words, what is needed is an agreement to work together then a bit of what in management speak would be termed JFDI. The only reason this is not happening is because we aren't doing it! Marxism is not something to hide from the general public, but it is an ideology (possibly the only one) that can bring genuine solutions to the problems lumped on the working class on a daily basis. A vehicle to represent the working class will not be bourne from watered down princples.

Frank Partisan said...

In the US we don't have anything close to a labor party.

In New Orleans, there is an African American named Malcolm Suber,running for a city council position, on an independent anti-racism, pro-wotking class platform. He is starting something called The Reconstruction Party. That might be the embryo of the labor party here.

Phil said...

@ Anon, I think the issue of putting forward a Marxist programme for a broad party formation is a tactical issue. As you know, being open baby-eating Marxists hasn't adversely affected Stoke SP's work with the local CWU at all, because we're primarily dealing with rank and file activists.

But with the building of a broad workers' party, which in this period is likely to come out of some union lash-up plus others, I think it's unlikely such a formation would have a Marxist programme, and neither do I think its appropriate for a broader body to have such a programme. Remember, the German SPD was formally Marxist but that didn't insulate it from the pressures all mass social democratic parties were subject to. Instead, leading figures were able to distort Marxism to justify stitching the working class up. Then they dumped the formal identification when it was no longer useful to resort to its rhetoric.

None of this precludes revolutionaries arguing for their programme in broader formations. I expect the SP would be in there, as well as expecting it *to* be there putting its case.

@ Renegade Eye, I don't envy US comrades at all. Best of luck with the Reconstruction Party.

Anonymous said...

In Ireland I was a member of the Workers' Party which came from Official Sinn Féin. While it took on elements of the Moscow line - in fairness it had many many other strands in it from Republican, to the odd Trotskyist, Euro-communists, and so on and so forth. But one thing it did which say the CPI (seriously Moscow line) didn't do was go out and organise in constituencies as an electoral party. I still think that is the key. The WP had 7 TDs (MPs) by the time it split into a reformist wing, but these were elected after the fall of the Berlin wall and the start of the dissolution of the Eastern bloc because they addressed the issues facing working class people. Now I'd have huge criticisms of the WP in retrospect, but, it engaged across a range of fronts while remaining unashamedly Marxist. A lot depends on what kind of party people want. I think your point about a new Bolshevik party is interesting, particularly your emphasis on internal democracy. But where is it to come from, how does it operate and what does it do to convince ordinary people that it will work for them and their rights. Because work is the key, getting out and upholding their needs, demands, mediating, contesting elections against the centre and the right (and in the UK that's an uphill battle with FPTP) Aye, there's the rub...