'Broad left parties': Murray Smith replies to Socialist Alternative's Mick Armstrong
Mass rally for Greece’s opposition Syriza party in Athens in May 2014.
By Murray Smith
June 23, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Mick Armstrong of Socialist Alternative, Australia, has written an article which sets out to criticise what I have written over the last 15 or so years on broad left parties ("A critique of the writings of Murray Smith on broad left partes" (PDF), Marxist Left Review, Summer 2014). I would like to reply to some of the points that he makes.
Mick Armstrong’s article starts off by saying that there has been a marked evolution in my views on the question over the last decade and that in his opinion this evolution has not been positive. So let me start by outlining how I began to approach the question and how my thinking has in fact evolved.
Up until the mid-1990s I had a very conventional Trotskyist view of the need to build the revolutionary party by starting with a (more or less depending on the circumstances) small nucleus armed with a revolutionary program. That did not exclude fusions with other revolutionary groups or entry into mass reformist parties (as practised very successfully by Militant in Britain). Let us note in passing that in Europe, after several decades of experience in a number of countries, this method has never led to the creation of anything resembling a mass party. I came to consider that this was not an accident. I have argued elsewhere that for two or three decades after the Second World War the position of the mass social-democratic and Stalinist parties was so strong that there was very little space to their left. That began to change in the 1960s and even more so after 1989-91. Objective reasons for failure receded and subjective, political weaknesses became more evident.
The failures and limits of the revolutionary left explain why Mick Armstrong was not mistaken when he wrote some years ago: “The argument that small groups of socialists need to start by first building a socialist propaganda group if they are to have any hope of laying secure foundations for a mass revolutionary party is by no means widely accepted by socialists today.” This was in a book entitled From Little Things Big Things Grow.
Well in botanical terms that is pretty much what happens, depending of course on the soil, the climate and careful cultivation. In politics it also depends on the circumstances and on human action. Sometimes when you start with a clean slate you can build from small beginnings quite quickly. This can be seen in the growth of the first mass working-class parties in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and also with the building of mass communist parties in Asia in the 20th century (China, Indonesia, Vietnam). Where the slate is not clean, that is where parties already exist, you have to start from that reality. New parties will then emerge from splits and various forms of regroupment.
That was the case, classically, in the formation of communist parties after the October Revolution. It was also what Trotsky sought unsuccessfully to do in the 1930s in trying to link up with various parties and currents that had emerged from the Stalinist and social-democratic parties.
Let us look concretely at the emergence of new parties over the last 25 years or so. How did the left, in the broadest sense, look at the beginning of the 1990s? The social-democratic parties were already well on the way to going over, at different speeds in different countries, to neoliberalism. The communist parties, already in decline in most countries, were in crisis as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in fact the crisis affected the workers’ movement more broadly, as it became increasingly clear that the result of the collapse was not a renewal of socialism but the restoration of capitalism. It accelerated the rightward evolution of social democracy. And it affected the far left as well, particularly its Trotskyist components, who had expected an anti-bureaucratic political revolution.
It was not immediately clear how this generalised crisis of the left in Europe would work itself out. One possibility seemed to be that with the rightward evolution of social democracy and the crisis of the communist parties, a bigger space was opening up for the revolutionary left, mostly from the Trotskyist tradition in its various forms, and that finally it would be possible to move towards mass parties. (By “move towards mass parties” I mean to become political forces that are progressively recognised and supported by a significant minority of the working class.) However that is not how things turned out.
There were signs in that direction, for example in France the electoral successes of Lutte Ouvrière and later the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR, Ligue communiste révolutionnaire). But what happened was that the revolutionary left was confronted by the fact that the existing parties of the left did not, with rare exceptions, simply disappear. They were however profoundly affected by the world-shaking events that were taking place and possibilities for new parties and regroupments began to appear. A part of the revolutionary left rose to the challenge, others, sometimes after some hesitation, fell back on “building the revolutionary party”.
In the first page of his article Mick Armstrong quotes from a 2001 article of mine (http://links.org.au/node/110) and criticises the following:
We put forward the basic ideas of revolutionary Marxism. And those ideas can begin [my emphasis, MS] to win a mass audience today if we can express them in a way which is understandable by ordinary people.
That was in 2001. Now, let’s see … In the 2003 Scottish elections the Scottish Socialist Party got 128,000 votes (6.7 per cent). Is that or is it not the beginning of a mass audience? How about the results of the LCR’s Olivier Besancenot in the 2002 and 2007 French presidential elections (not to mention Lutte Ouvrière’s Arlette Laguiller in 1995 and 2002)? Then there’s the result of Die Linke in 2005. There are plenty of other examples.
In a context of acute crisis and a high level of struggle you get the results of Syriza in Greece, which now massively outvotes social democracy and the situation in Spain where the United Left and Podemos got 18 per cent compared to the social-democratic PSOE’s 23 per cent in the 2014 European election and outvoted the PSOE in 24 of the 40 biggest towns. In France the Left Front (Front de Gauche) won 11 per cent in the 2012 presidential elections. And in Denmark the Red Green Alliance won sweeping gains in last year’s local elections and is now running at 10 per cent in the opinion polls.
These are not isolated results that you can explain away by this or that national context. They indicate a tendency. Of course you might say that all those parties don’t express “the basic ideas of revolutionary Marxism”. But what they do all express in various ways is a rejection of neoliberalism and the idea of an alternative that involves breaking with capitalism. They may not all have a worked out strategy as to how to do it; we’ll come back to that.
The point is, why has it been possible over the last 15-20 years to get results like that? (I refer to electoral results because they are a good indication of the strength of a party’s support and they are quantifiable.) And we come back to the question of the influence of reformism. Without going any further back for the moment, in the postwar period workers supported the mass social-democratic and communist parties as defenders of the gains that had been made and as a means of winning more. These gains were summed up in the term “welfare state”, or social state as it more often known in Europe.
In Britain, most of the key reforms were enacted by the Labour Party from 1945-51. There then followed 13 years of Conservative Party governments that basically left the edifice intact. It stayed that way for 30 years, until Margaret Thatcher began to dismantle it.
In France similar reforms were introduced by a tripartite Socialist-Communist-Christian Democrat government, in Germany by the Christian Democrats.
These were fundamentally bipartisan measures, what was called for good reason the postwar consensus. But for the most class-conscious workers, supporting socialist or communist parties was seen as the best guarantee of defending and extending those gains, and for many of them eventually achieving socialism. So they voted for them and a minority joined them. The support for these parties was not natural nor did it “arise from the very nature of working class existence under capitalism”. It was perfectly rational.
What happened from the 1980s onwards was that the social-democratic parties, which were often in government in Western Europe, joined in the process of attacking the welfare state, privatising, deregulating and so on. And that opened up the possibility of parties emerging to their left which would occupy the terrain that had been abandoned and defend the gains that were under attack.
Mick Armstrong writes:
The possibility of building mass parties genuinely to the left of the reformist parties will only exist if there is a mass working-class radicalisation.
This is demonstrably not true. The process of building such parties began in the 1990s, not as a rule in a context of mass working-class radicalisation, in those countries where the political conditions for launching them existed, or to be more exact, had been created. In fact, for a long time one of the paradoxes was that in the country where the working class was probably most radicalised, France, there was no credible anti-capitalist part, because the political conditions for it did not yet exist.
In the 1990s we were confronted with a situation where the attacks against the European working class were intensifying and where the left and the workers’ movements were in disarray. It was in this context that various phenomena of regroupment were being tried in various countries.
In the second half of the 1990s I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to regroup forces from various sources not on the basis of their ideologies but on the basis of a refusal to recognise that capitalism was the end of history and that it was necessary to concretely combat the neoliberal offensive. And to build parties that had a parliamentary presence but whose centre of gravity was outside parliament. Not just united fronts or loose movements (which can both be useful), but parties – if necessary via a phase of front, alliance or coalition.
At the time it seemed to me that the left was a field of ruins and that we had to bring together forces from the far left, ecologists, communists, socialists, trade unionists, social movement activists, in some countries left nationalists. As I said above, not all the far left was ready to do that. As for the rest, I did not at that time consider, on the basis of the weakness of resistance to the neoliberal turn in most socialist parties, that there would be any significant splits from social democracy. I thought that the communist parties were finished. Although the process would obviously take some time, it seemed to me that they were destined to either become satellites of social democracy, or else ossify into neo-Stalinist sects.
Scottish Socialist Party
What was decisive in consolidating my approach to the question was the experience of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). I was in the mid-1990s a leading member of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), based in London from 1994 to1997, when I went back to France. It was at that time that I met comrades who would later play an important role in launching the SSP. I was initially sceptical about the proposal in 1998 to launch the SSP, which the CWI leadership opposed, but I became convinced that it was correct, that what was necessary was to build a broad anti-capitalist party. I wrote in 1999, “The perspective is to regroup forces, not on pre-established ideological criteria, but on the basis of the challenges of the political situation and the tasks which flow from it” (in French, in the review Carré rouge, issue 11). I continue to think that that is what is necessary and that experience has proved that it is possible.
The idea that new parties would be formed by forces from different backgrounds was not a pre-conceived notion, but was based on the new parties that were in fact emerging, of which the SSP was only one example.
The first such party or alliance was in Spain, with the formation of Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) in 1986, as a continuation of a coalition formed to oppose Spain joining NATO; its main component, then as today, being the Communist Party of Spain. From 1989 to 1999 we saw the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, the Left Bloc in Portugal, déi Lénk in Luxembourg and of course the SSP. All of them involved a mixture of far-left forces, mostly Trotskyist, but also Maoist, and some forces from the communist parties. In the case of the SSP the dominant organised force was the International Socialist Movement, which came from the Militant-CWI tradition, but there were sufficient numbers of activists from other backgrounds and a few small groups for it not to be seen as just a continuation of the Militant current.
In all cases except Italy the pre-condition for launching the party was a prior agreement between political forces, usually preceded by common work, and in the case of the SSP by the experience of the Scottish Socialist Alliance over two years. It would be wrong to simply reduce these parties to electoral formations.
To take the example I know best, the groundwork for the SSP was laid by the collaboration of different forces in the movement against the poll tax, the campaigns against water privatisation, against the Criminal Justice Bill, in support of the Timex strike in Dundee. The SSP itself was constantly engaged in extra-parliamentary activity.
There was, however, everywhere an electoral dimension, for which I make no apology. In a bourgeois democracy a party cannot become a serious force without standing in elections. Electoral campaigns are a way of extending a party’s audience and of measuring its support at a given moment. If they result in the party having elected representatives who use their positions effectively, it is a way of enlarging its popular support. Around the turn of the century, a bit earlier for Denmark’s Red Green Alliance (RGA) and Italy’s Party of Communist Refoundation, known as Rifondazione (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista), these new parties began to make progress on the electoral level. 1999 saw the entry into parliament of three parties with only a few months’ existence: déi Lénk, the SSP and the Left Bloc. In 2000, some of the new parties began to come together in the European Anticapitalist Left. The four organising parties were the SSP, the LCR, the RGA and the Left Bloc. Later, Rifondazione and Synaspismos in Greece, among other parties, began to participate.
Rifondazione was the result of a left split from a Communist Party of Italy (PCI) that was on the road to social democracy (and which didn’t stop there). But it subsequently took in other forces from a non-PCI background, especially Democrazia Proletaria, whose origins lay in the far left of the 1960s and 1970s.
The history of Synaspismos is more complicated. It was the result of a series of recompositions in the Greek communist movement. In 2004 it became the main component of the Syriza coalition, involving also Trotskyist and Maoist forces, which would in 2013 become a party.
The other examples were of rather small groups coming together. What they all had in common, apart from anti-capitalism, was their pluralist character. None of them grew from a small ideologically homogenous nucleus à la far left. As I said above, no party has emerged from such an origin.
The Dutch Socialist Party certainly came from an original Maoist nucleus. But it became a serious force by discarding its original ideology and opening up the party to people coming from other backgrounds. As regards the trajectory of the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB), which has just made an electoral breakthrough in alliance with other forces and with independents, the jury is still out. Some people think it will follow the example of the Dutch SP.
So all of that confirmed me in my conviction that broad anticapitalist parties were both necessary and possible. But what did most to convince me was the actual experience of being in the SSP. It was for me living proof that new anti-capitalist parties could be formed and be effective without all the programmatic-ideological baggage and the, in many cases, bureaucratic functioning of the far-left groups (though as far as internal democracy is concerned, it’s a one-horse race: there is a clear difference between the Fourth International on the one hand and the International Socialist Tendency and CWI on the other). And by getting rid of the programmatic-ideological baggage I don’t mean abandoning Marxism. On the contrary, it is the dominant political influence in all the parties I have mentioned. It is a question of getting rid of the shibboleths, pre-conceived schemas and sectarian traits of the far left.
Mick Armstrong claims that my “triumphalist assessment” of the prospects for these parties “turned to water”. Actually I had no such triumphalist assessment, simply the conviction that such parties were necessary, and were capable of representing an alternative and winning support.
There are three parties that Armstrong does not mention because they do not conceivably fit into his caricature of “turning to water”: the RGA, the Left Bloc and déi Lénk have all become nationally recognised political forces over the last 15 years. However none of them have advanced in a straight line, but with ups and downs and setbacks.
As for the PRC (Rifondazione), under its then leader, Fausto Bertinotti, it entered the Romano Prodi government in 2006-2008. This was in my opinion a colossal error for which they have paid dearly, in terms of a split to the right and loss of members and electoral support. Nevertheless, the PRC has continued to exist and remains central to any resurgence of the left in Italy. In the recent European election campaign the coalition of which it was part made an admittedly narrow breakthrough and had three MEPs elected. As for having “moved sharply to the right”, that may apply to the period in government, but following that experience and the subsequent split it would be more correct to say that it moved clearly to the left. As for the groups that split from it because of its participation in government, they have made very little impact.
Coming now to Scotland and England, Mick Armstrong says that the SSP had “torn itself apart”. This is unfortunately true. But why was that? Did it have something to do with the fact that the SSP was not a “revolutionary party”, that it mixed up reformists and revolutionaries, etc.? That was the criticism made by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) before it did a U-turn and joined the SSP. But no one has seriously argued that as an explanation of what happened from 2004 onwards.
The crisis of the SSP was a result of the shameful behaviour of its best-known public representative, who was prepared to perjure himself and drag the party through the courts for his own personal motives. That he was capable of such conduct, no one would have predicted, or at least no one did. If there is a lesson to be learnt, and there is, it is that it is dangerous for a party to depend to such an extent on one public figure.
Mick Armstrong also informs his readers that the English Socialist Alliance “was no more”. Once again, this is true. Once again, why? Did it collapse because of its innate political contradictions? Actually, under the leadership of the SWP, it was subsumed into the new party, Respect, launched at the height of the anti-war movement around the figure of George Galloway and largely organised by the SWP. Respect did in fact enter into crisis, in the first place because of the way the SWP operated within it. I dealt with this quite extensively in an article at the time (http://www.links.org.au/node/252). Respect later relaunched and failed again, this time thanks to Galloway’s limitations.
Today there is a new party in Britain, Left Unity, which unlike the Socialist Alliance and Respect is not dominated by a single far-left faction, nor is it blessed with a charismatic leader. It faces many challenges but it has made a good start and it may become that socialist force to the left of the Labour Party that is so necessary. And that is the point: broad anti-capitalist parties are what are necessary today and if one attempt fails, sooner or later another one will be made.
As for the SSP, as its spokesperson Colin Fox recently remarked, rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It is alive and well and playing an active role in the referendum campaign. Whether it will be able to become once again the undisputed socialist force in Scotland, or whether there will be some process of regroupment, remains to be seen. But whatever happens, the record is there: between 1999 and 2006 the SSP demonstrated that it was capable of winning mass support on a clear-cut socialist program.
‘Serious misassessment of the balance of class forces’?
Mick Armstrong considers that my perspectives for new parties were “based in part on a serious misassessment of the balance of class forces and the degree of working-class radicalisation in the early 2000s”. They were not.
It is possible that I made over-optimistic judgements at certain times. But the perspective of broad anti-capitalist parties was never based on the level of class struggle at a particular moment but on what was objectively necessary. There is an autonomy of politics and it is possible to launch parties and for these parties to progress even in unfavourable situations. The RGA was launched in 1989, hardly an auspicious moment. Neither the Left Bloc nor déi Lénk were launched on a wave of struggles. These new parties made progress because what they said made sense, what they did took the struggle forward and because they had a political perspective. Of course, things move faster in a situation of a high level of class struggle and crisis, the clearest example being that of Syriza. But parties do not just emerge at the height of a crisis; they need to be built beforehand.
But did I in fact exaggerate the objective situation? Well, let’s see, starting with the anti-globalisation movement. Actually, I was never starry-eyed about the global justice movement. I thought it was significant, that it showed that a lot of people were ready to not just accept the status quo and that while it lasted it was important to be in it. Although it was never very big in Scotland, where I was at the time. But I never saw it as a substitute for party, nor even the road towards one. Here is what I wrote in 2002:
The movement against capitalist globalization is a major development that we have to first of all understand and then relate to. It is misleading to simply describe this movement as anti-capitalist. It has grown up in response to the multiple manifestations of neo-liberal globalization. It is now crystallizing into a consciousness that it is a whole world system that is in question. But many participants in the movement do not have the consciousness of fighting against capitalism, but against neo-liberalism or corporate power. And there are political trends which have more or less worked out projects of reforming and humanizing the system. Even among the more advanced elements, the development of anti-capitalist consciousness is hindered by the continuing crisis of credibility of socialism as an alternative. Nevertheless the scope and the dynamic of the movement bring it objectively into conflict with capitalism.
There is no excuse for conservatism in relation to this movement. Neither its present political limits nor its relative weakness here compared to other countries can justify an attitude of scepticism and passivity. We have to go into this movement and build it and in the process link up with the socialist and Marxist forces within it. The first thing is to be clear about our political objectives.
It is not possible to oppose capitalist globalization simply with the aim of controlling it. Demands such as the Tobin tax (a tax on speculative movements of capital) may be useful as a starting point. It is certainly possible to fight on limited demands with those who do not share all our political objectives. But it is not possible to fight consistently against neo-liberal globalization without understanding that this is the present phase of capitalism.
Not exactly overblown, is it? And I was not particularly surprised that it didn’t last forever.
As for the industrial struggle, from the same document:
There were upsurges of working class resistance in Europe, particularly during the 1990-93 recession. There was a working-class mobilisation against the first Berlusconi government in 1994, which contributed to its fall after only seven months in power. And in November-December 1995, in response to government attacks on social security and pension systems, there was the biggest strike movement in France since 1968. In fact, the rise in industrial militancy of the French working class had begun in the autumn of 1993 and has remained at a relatively high level since. There were big class battles in South Korea after the economic crisis hit the country in 1997, and the following year the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia was overthrown. In 1997 there was a huge revolt in Albania against the results of capitalist restoration.
But in a sense this revolt underlined the impasse that the working class was in internationally in the 1990s. It had all the ingredients of a revolutionary situation (including self-organisation and arming of the population) except one—the insurgents did not have an alternative to capitalism. That absence of alternative is what marked most movements of resistance all over the world after 1989.
Many workers remained, to say the least, sceptical about the free-market discourse, which was imposed more by default and by incessant propaganda than by conviction. But what was missing were political parties, trade unions and intellectuals to articulate this, to organise opposition and to offer a positive perspective. The traditional workers' parties were galloping to the right at full speed, followed and sometimes preceded by the trade union leaderships. The main intellectual trend was abandonment of socialism and acceptance and justification of capitalism.
Over the last two years, there has been a perceptible change in the political and social climate—not enough to cancel out the negative effects of the 1980s and 1990s, but enough to modify the situation in a sense more favourable to the working class. The capitalist offensive continues. The working class internationally is still on the defensive, but resistance is rising and the system is being increasingly challenged and questioned. The counter-tendencies that existed in the 1990s have begun to crystallise and create a new situation. In fact, the very triumphalism of capitalism has rebounded on it. As the direct experience of people all over the world gives the lie to their claims, it is the capitalists themselves who have helped to identify their own system as the enemy.
With hindsight, the last paragraph, and also the extract that Mick Armstrong quotes from “Where is the SWP going?” are certainly too optimistic on the international level. They were probably too much influenced by the French situation, where 2003 would see the biggest movement since 1968.
Downplaying mass struggle?
Mick Armstrong writes that, “in the 2007 article [Murray Smith] began to downplay the importance of mass struggle compared to parliamentary elections”. In fact, neither before nor after 2007 did I downplay the experience of mass struggle. Just to mention articles I wrote in English on France I dealt with the mass movement against Le Pen in 2002, the May-June movement of 2003, the youth revolt of 2005, the mobilisations in 2006 and 2010. I also wrote about the challenges facing the European workers’ movement, the “arc of resistance” in Southern Europe, the situation in Spain, etc. Of course if you are concentrating on what I have written about broad left parties you wouldn’t necessarily consult those articles, but they certainly do exist and most of them were published in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
Of course, I also sometimes wrote articles that did centre on elections, particularly in France. But in the two examples Mick Armstrong gives concerning my 2007 article, the French referendum in 2005 and the German elections in the same year, it is not actually a question of elections as against mass struggle. First of all, the constitutional referendum campaign in France had nothing to do with parliamentary elections. It was a mass political campaign led by an alliance of the Communist Party of France (PCF), the LCR, the current of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (then still in the Socialist Party) and the maverick ecologist José Bové. It involved campaigning and forming committees in estates, neighbourhoods, villages, workplaces, universities and schools all over France, a campaign that lasted for months. On the opposing side was the entire political establishment supported by the media and big business, thinking the result was a foregone conclusion. But the “No” won, very largely due to the left’s campaign. That was a major political defeat for the French ruling class.
As for the second example, the event was not the electoral result itself, but that it confirmed the emergence for the first time since 1945 of a political force to the left of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on a national level. And once again, there is no mechanical connection between a high level of mass struggle and the emergence of a political alternative.
Let us take the two examples. In France, it was the united political campaign in 2005 and its impact on the participants that prepared the way for the Left Front, and also, arguably, for the initial success of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). In Germany, it was certainly the wave of resistance to the Hartz reforms of the Schröder government that led to people leaving the SPD and organising outside. But without the political initiative of linking up with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) those people would probably have dispersed or formed a small group. And in Germany above all, only 15 years after reunification, to form a party from people coming from communist and social-democratic backgrounds was an achievement.
This is what Mick Armstrong has to say about France and Germany in 2005:
It is also totally incorrect to argue that austerity measures are more likely to be reversed by referendum results or electoral victories than by mass struggle.
Leave aside that I never argued such a thing. The way he counterposes elections and mass struggle is quite sterile. Perhaps he can give an example of mass struggle reversing austerity measures? In fact, even in France, where the level of resistance to neoliberal policies on a social and political level has been greatest, they have not been reversed. Constant resistance has slowed them down, taken some of the sharper edges off them. On two occasions, in 1994 and 2006, attempts to introduce a cut-rate minimum wage for young people were stopped by mass mobilisations. But overall, “we occasionally win battles, up to now they have been winning the war”. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight the battles, or that we shouldn’t conduct political campaigns around referendums and elections, which correctly done can politicise masses of people.
As for reversing austerity (and the counter-reforms that are dismantling the social state) to do that you need political power, and to win power you need a party. Not just a party, many other forms of popular organisation as well, but centrally, a party – or parties. In a general sense the record shows that social movements come and go, but we need politics and we need parties.
Over the past four years Greece has seen an extraordinarily high level of mass struggle. But what has worried the Greek and European ruling classes the most? Undoubtedly the rise of Syriza. Of course the rise of Syriza is intertwined with the profound crisis that Greece has experienced, with the measures dictated by the Troïka and their social consequences, and with the mass struggles that have ensued. But if you had the crisis and the mass struggles without a credible political alternative the ruling classes would have been a lot less worried. Syriza as a political alternative did not fall from the sky, nor was it a mechanical result of the crisis. It was a product of a long drawn-out political process.
To come back to the French referendum and the formation of Die Linke in Germany, it was not entirely obvious at the time, but they were in fact symptomatic of new developments on the left. As I said above, 10 to 15 years ago I considered the communist parties finished and nothing much would come out of social democracy. Things turned out differently. While new parties were emerging and the European Anti-capitalist Left was forming, a process was going on that barely registered with me and to which I attached little importance at the time. I was not alone in that.
Process of discussion and reassessment
What was happening was a process of discussion and reassessment among a certain number of communist parties. This had begun in the 1990s with the New European Left Forum. The eventual outcome was the congress in Rome in 2004 that established the European Left Party and the first congress of the ELP in Athens in 2005.
The dominant component of the ELP was a group of communist parties coming from the pro-Moscow tradition. In particular, the French, Spanish and Austrian parties, to which we could add parties like Die Linke, the PRC and Synaspismos, where communist influence was strong if not dominant. In Spain the PCE became a member party, as did the United Left and in Catalonia the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, Esquerra Unida i Alternativa). The PDS joined, as did Die Linke when it was formed. There were some parties from Eastern Europe.
Significantly, both the PRC and Synaspismos, which had participated in the European Anti-capitalist Left, immediately became members. Déi Lenk took observer status and later full membership. Later the Left Bloc and then the Red Green Alliance joined. How these forces and others came together requires some explanation.
First of all the communist parties: the choice that I had earlier identified – either Stalino-sectarianism or capitulation to social democracy – was real. Some parties, or currents within parties, and some prominent individuals chose one of those options. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has become a caricature of sectarianism and consciously regressed towards Stalinism. The majority of the PCI embarked on the road that in several stages would lead it to the Democratic Party. Robert Hué, former national secretary of the French Communist Party, today presides over a small group that is a satellite of the Socialist Party, which has kindly given him a seat in the Senate. There are many other examples, in both directions.
But it turned out that there was a third option, which was to refuse the neoliberal consensus, continue to defend the perspective of socialism and, crucially in most cases, be willing to work with other forces. That is what made the ELP possible.
In France after coming out of the experience of the Jospin government in 2002 the French Communist Party moved to the left, but what was decisive at a certain point was its willingness to form the Left Front along with the Left Party (Parti de Gauche) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Unitary Left, which came from the LCR-NPA.
As for forces coming from social democracy, experience has shown that there were more possibilities there than I had anticipated. In France, apart from the highly organised faction around Mélenchon which broke with the Socialist Party in 2008, many former members of the SP are in the Left Party. And within the Socialist Party itself there is now serious opposition to the neoliberal policies of President Francois Hollande. In Germany, the participation of former social democrats was decisive for the success of Die Linke. And in Greece, when PASOK cracked between the rock of the Troïka’s demands and the hard place of its own base, many of its members went to Syriza. So it is likely that we will see similar developments elsewhere.
I never said, by the way, that the social-democratic parties were bourgeois parties “just like” the Conservatives, Liberals, etc. They have applied anti-working class policies consistently for decades now. (The example of Hollande developing a left discourse to get elected in 2012 proves nothing. It’s what he is doing now that he’s in power that matters). But they have specificities and in spite of the transformations in their social composition, now much less working class, there is a contradiction between part of their membership and the policies the parties follow. I consider today that I was a little hasty in underestimating that.
European Left Party
Why did key parties of the European Anticapitalist Left join the European Left Party (ELP)? Well, the project of the ELP was actually not so different from the original purpose of the European Anticapitalist Left. The European Anticapitalist Left was explicitly not intended to be an international regroupment of far-left groups. It was meant to be a regroupment of new parties that were anti-capitalist, pluralist and representative. The LCR got in on the ground floor because of its MEPs and because, among far-left groups in Europe, it had far and away the best claim to be pluralist. Later the SWP began to attend because of its involvement in the England and Wales Socialist Alliance.
But the aim was to have parties that were anti-capitalist and broad. When the ELP was formed it became logical to join, in spite of differences of political culture. In fact most of the European Anticapitalist Left parties that joined the ELP retained dual membership in the European Anticapitalist Left until the regroupment just fizzled out, having taken on an increasingly far-left character. The occasional anti-capitalist meetings that still take place are exactly what the European Anticapitalist Left was not meant to be.
It is not a question of being starry eyed about the ELP or about the parties that make it up. But it is a highly positive development that parties, some of them with significant mass support in their respective countries, each with their histories and their specificities, have come together to constitute an alternative to the Europe of capital. And there is a clear evolution to the left. Here is a short extract from the Political Document of the ELP’s fourth congress, held in Madrid in December 2013:
For us, there is no question of waiting for the European Union to crumble, and for the monsters that could emerge from the rubble, nor of promoting nationalist solutions setting the peoples against one another. The European Left, which we represent, is internationalist and stands together in solidarity. We strive towards a socialist alternative, a civilisation freed from capitalism, exploitation, oppression and capitalist violence. Ours is a vision that guarantees not only a distribution of wealth that supports work and an advanced social and economic development model, but also democracy, equality, democratic and social rights for all European citizens.
It is to this end that we fight for a re-foundation of Europe, in other words, for a new definition of its objectives, policies and structures; an economic, productive, social and ecological model that is totally different, and that is based on solidarity, social justice and popular sovereignty.
In comparison with previous documents of the ELP, there is an evolution towards affirming a clear anti-capitalist position and calling for a refoundation, not just of the EU, but of Europe, therefore not a perspective of reforming the EU. There is also a very clear refusal of the treaties that underlie the EU and a call for any genuine left government to disobey them.
There are of course debates and differences of appreciation: concerning the euro, how to deal with the question of the debt (which is not solved by slogans), the question of ecosocialism, how to relate to existing EU institutions, etc. Neither the ELP nor its member parties are perfect. There are problems, disagreements, weaknesses. For example it is clear that after a series of electoral successes the Left Front in France is engaged in a difficult debate over its future perspectives, and that this debate is taking place in an overall political context that is not favourable to the left. There have been, are and will be problems, setbacks, differences in the ELP and in its various parties. That is perfectly normal. What seems to me much more important is that in 10 years of existence the ELP has emerged as the principal pole of resistance to neoliberal Europe and that it is necessary to continue building it.
As regards Europe and the ELP I would refer readers to an interview I gave at the end of last year, covering this and a number of another points at more length. That goes also for the questions of reform, revolution and political strategy, which I will therefore deal with more succinctly.
Mick Armstrong is very liberal in dispensing labels such as revolutionary/non-revolutionary, reformist. He must therefore have a very clear idea of the difference between reformism and revolutionary politics.
He accuses me of having “a pretty standard narrative that focuses on change via a left government in a bourgeois parliament. There is no reference to workers having their own organisations of mass democracy – workers’ councils, soviets or factory committees. A mass movement is invoked, but its central role is to back up and defend a left government, not to take power into its own hands via an insurrectionary uprising.” And he adds on, “the likelihood of a left government betraying its working class supporters”.
Insurrection vs self-organisation?
I think the above quotes sum up pretty well the weaknesses of Mick Armstrong’s politics. Revolution is reduced to an insurrectionary uprising based on workers’ councils. Frankly, we’re back in October 1917. What’s wrong with that?
Quite a lot. I will repeat something I have often said, without getting much sense out of various “revolutionary” critics. There has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist with well-established democratic institutions. You cannot just assume that a revolution in such countries will be like the Russian Revolution, where state power was seized from the outside in an insurrectionary fashion after a period of dual power. If you think that, you have to justify it, because it is only a hypothesis.
There is another hypothesis which I consider more plausible. That is that in countries with democratic institutions and democratic rights, which were mostly fought for by the workers’ movement, political change will begin by going through those channels. To have popular legitimacy, an anti-capitalist party or parties would have to win an election based on universal suffrage. And then begin to apply its program, starting with the most immediate questions, “by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order”.
How quickly that would proceed cannot be predicted in advance. Every step forward would have to be supported by popular mobilisations. Forms of working-class self-organisation would emerge then in support of a left government, not against it. Mick Armstrong warns of the danger of a left government betraying. He seems to think that “left government based on a parliamentary majority = reformism”. Why is that necessarily so? It depends on the party, its program, its relationship with the working class and its allies.
When Mick Armstrong mentions parliament, he always puts the prefix “bourgeois” and seems shocked at the idea of having to keep on winning “bourgeois parliamentary elections”. But I never said that, I said keep on winning elections (without the “bourgeois”), because I think that will be necessary not just during a transitional period but also in a post-capitalist society. And I do think that can be combined with self-organised democracy in the workplaces, whatever name we give it. How does Mick Armstrong think we can build socialism without being able to win elections based on universal suffrage?
Mick Armstrong enquires whether I “really think that the ruling class would allow a genuinely radical left government that was determined to abolish capitalist rule to stay in office and keep winning elections”? Well, I really think that the ruling class would do everything it could to stop that, but I don’t think it is inevitable that it would succeed. Mick Armstrong mentions Chile. But Allende’s overthrow proves only that Allende could be overthrown, in my opinion because of his own and his government’s political choices and limits. It doesn’t prove that the ruling classes and imperialism will always succeed.
When I referred to Chile in the above-mentioned interview, Stuart Munckton pointed out to me that I hadn’t mentioned Venezuela. But I could have, and indeed should have. Because the Venezuelan ruling class and imperialism did try to overthrow Hugo Chavez, but they failed, because the army remained loyal and there was a mass popular mobilisation, neither of which was an accident. And Chavez kept on winning elections. He didn’t overthrow capitalism, but he continued implementing policies in the interest of the majority of the population, policies which were anathema to imperialism. Similarly, there is the experience of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Mick Armstrong deals in a fairly peremptory fashion with most of the main parties in the ELP. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that those parties say or do, but I think they are trying to define an anti-capitalist strategy for their countries. The kind of criticism that starts from the idea that any strategy that starts from the winning of a parliamentary majority is necessarily reformist, takes us nowhere.
The way Mick Armstrong divides Syriza into “non-revolutionary” (the leadership that has taken Syriza to where it is today) and an opposition that is baptised “revolutionary” is a caricature. I don’t think any socialist revolution can be entirely peaceful. But nor do I think that we should not say that our intention is to come to power peacefully, democratically and that if there is violence, we didn’t start it. But we should take measures to counter it.
Mick Armstrong writes, “People with all sorts of perspectives and political orientations can say they reject capitalism. The anti-capitalist label tells you little about what people really stand for or the role they will play in any specific struggle”. Well, on a certain level that’s true, but in this particular period, where it is still difficult to defend a socialist perspective, the fact that parties come out clearly as anti-capitalist is in itself a positive sign. And yes, of course, we judge them by what they do, and we don’t give them a blank cheque.
But how about the “revolutionary label”? We should also judge parties which call themselves revolutionary by what they do. Of course they and their members may be active in many campaigns and struggles. But many far-left parties and groups have very little in the way of strategy, beyond the kind of references that Mick Armstrong makes to what is essentially the model of October.
I am profoundly convinced that that is largely insufficient, and that we have to address the problems of effecting revolutionary change in the very different conditions of advanced capitalist countries today, and to build parties that can take that forward.
[Murray Smith is a Scottish socialist who has been involved in leftist politics in various Western European countries since the 1960s. Since 2009 he has lived in Luxemburg, where he takes part in the activities of the left party déi Lenk and was elected to be the party’s representative in the European Left Party’s executive bureau in 2010. He is a former international officer for the Scottish Socialist Party.]
 “Broad parties and narrow visions”, http://links.org.au/node/252.
 “Axes of Marxist internationalism”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal #21, http://links.org.au/node/89.
 Some examples: “The May-June movement and its
aftermath”, Links International Journal of
Socialist Renewal #25, http://links.org.au/node/38; “The European workers’ movement: dangers and
challenges”, http://links.org.au/node/2220; “France: not victorious but not defeated”, http://links.org.au/node/2034. [Most of Murray Smith's articles at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal are collected at http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/709.]
 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Harmondsworth, 1973, p 86.