The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front [1]

By John Rees


The resurgence of radicalism in the anti-capitalist movement and the trade unions has provoked an important debate across the left internationally. The issue is this: what kind of party should socialists build? Should it be a broad socialist party or a revolutionary organisation? This is a discussion that has recurred many times in the socialist movement since at least the days of Marx and Engels. But it has been renewed today both because of the rebirth of radicalism and because of the decline of Labourism and the traditional Communist parties. Murray Smith and Nick McKerrell have made important contributions to this discussion in recent articles in the magazine Frontline, reproduced in this journal. Murray Smith also raises some important questions about the history of the Socialist Workers Party, and so before we address the substance of this debate it is worth recalling the path that the left has taken to reach its current position.

How did we get here?

There have been four distinct phases in the class struggle in Britain since the second world war. The first was the long postwar boom, a period of social stability. This ended in the late 1960s and was followed by a second period marked by radicalism and intensifying class struggle. This upturn was broken by a renewed employers' offensive decisively assisted by the Labour government from the mid-1970s until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. By this point the third phase, the downturn, was under way. It became one of the most systematic series of defeats inflicted on any working class in the industrialised world. During the succeeding decade steel workers, miners, dockers and printers were beaten in set-piece battles with the employers and the state. The fourth phase is the current revival in consciousness and combativity, discernable from the mid-1990s and unmistakable since the Seattle demonstration in 1999.

These changes in society necessarily had an impact on the Labour Party. In a period of economic expansion the Labour Party could both implement reforms and remain within the parameters of the capitalist system. As the long period of low growth and stagnation set in after the early 1970s, Labour governments delivered fewer reforms and became ever more determined to attack working people's living standards in the name of "strengthening the competitiveness of the economy". Thus opened an era of reformism without reforms. But working class allegiance to reformism did not disappear since the mainstream alternative, the Tories, was even worse. This loyalty to Labour was reinforced by the fact that the self-activity of the working class was at historically low levels, undermining more radical alternatives.

It is necessary, if a little tedious, to rehearse this well-known story because the tactics of any socialist organisation have to rest on an understanding of the phases through which the class struggle passes. Murray Smith treats the development of the Socialist Workers Party as if it were only tangentially related to the state of the class struggle when in fact that was the central, and publicly discussed, heart of the matter.1

Briefly, the central relationship ran as follows. During the long boom a small, organisationally loose but ideologically clear propaganda group, the International Socialists (IS), was all that it was possible to build. The Labour Party and the Communist Party monopolised much of the political space on the left. This changed in 1968 and the IS grew. Over the subsequent years it gained a small but real working class implantation. The IS also developed the capacity to undertake effective agitational work. From 1968, after a fierce argument, it became a democratic centralist organisation in order to be more effective in the new situation. Thus more open and agitational work, including the establishment of rank and file papers, Women's Voice and Flame, went together with a more "Leninist" form of party organisation. Murray Smith is quite wrong to imply that a "sectarian" political line went "hand in hand" with "an increasingly authoritarian regime". He has, quite apart from anything else, got his dates wrong.

Neither is it true that "Cliff developed a theory of the downturn in the class struggle to justify this sectarian line". Cliff spotted, as early as 1978, that the wave of working class victories that had characterised the period since 1968 was coming to a close. It was a vital insight. Thatcher's election came as less of a surprise to the SWP than to much of the rest of the left. And we were better prepared for the nature of the battles that followed, critically the 1984-1985 miners' strike, than we would have been otherwise. However, we did not ignore the political battles that raged in the same period: the rise of Bennism, rate capping, the GLC [Greater London Council] and Liverpool's Militant-led council. Indeed we described this phenomenon as an "industrial downturn and a political upturn". But we did make the point that unless the industrial struggle rose to meet the level of political radicalisation, then the forces involved on the political front would ultimately be isolated and defeated. And so it proved to be successively for Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Militant.

Our own stance was to fight when possible and to hold together as large an organisation based on revolutionary ideas as we could. Insulation from an era of defeats did take its toll. Propaganda methods, habits of thought and forms of organisation dominated the organisation for nearly twenty years. Much of that has changed as the movement has revived, but still more needs to be done. But at the end of that period the SWP emerged with more forces to deploy on the new terrain of the class struggle than all the other left of Labour organisations put together. We made mistakes during the downturn, but we did not mistake the central characteristic of the period. And we did not, even when we were intimately involved with mass campaigns like the ANL [Anti-Nazi League], the miners' support groups or the poll tax campaign, lose sight of the need to establish a larger revolutionary organisation at the end of the campaign than we had at the beginning.

Others took a different path. The Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France survived by allowing many of its members to become embedded in union or campaign organisations. Whether or not this was a more effective strategy in the past, it certainly seems that it leaves that organisation with no fewer problems in relating party-building to the new radicalisation than those faced by the SWP. For myself, I'm happy to pay my respects to anyone who survived the last 20 years and emerged as a Marxist. But that alone will not tell us what to do next. Critically it will not give us the answer to the key question raised by Murray Smith and Nick McKerrell: is the Labour Party finished as a working class reformist organisation?

The nature of Labourism

Has there been a "transformation of the reformist Labour parties into openly capitalist organisations", as Nick McKerrell argues [see article]? If Labour is finished, then the whole political territory that it previously occupied is, potentially at least, open to a new socialist party. What is needed, Nick McKerrell says, is "a unified socialist party that would fill the void created by the transforming of Labour into a party of big business".2 The distinction between reform and revolution has become redundant since one pole of this opposition has collapsed. And, therefore, the need for united front work will also have become unnecessary since, without any organised reformist forces, an agreement for action between reformists and revolutionaries, the definition of a united front, is clearly irrelevant.

If all these conditions pertain to the current political situation, then it might be perfectly correct to launch a new broad party without immediately confronting the issue of reform or revolution. We would have been returned to the situation that Marx and Engels found themselves in at the end of the nineteenth century, before the rise of the Labour Party.

But a moment's calm reflection tells us that this analysis of the Labour Party bears little relation to the facts. The defeat of the Labour left in the 1980s has certainly paved the way for the most right-wing Labour leadership in a generation. And the adoption by that leadership of the neo-liberal economic and social agenda has hugely diminished the policy differences between the major parties. These facts explain the massive disparity between the views and aspirations of many, perhaps a majority of workers, and the leadership of the Labour Party.

But these facts do not mean that the Labour Party has ceased to be a reformist organisation. All parties are defined not only by their policies but also by their class composition. This is especially true of reformist parties, since they have always been organisations composed of workers but with policies and leaderships wedded to the continued existence of the capitalist system. This contradiction has been pushed to extremes by New Labour—and it is this fact that creates the opportunity for socialist organisation independent of Labourism—but it has not yet been broken.

Labour remains working class in the following crucial senses: its individual members are overwhelmingly working class, even though the apparatus is more dominated by middle class elements than it was before; its voting base is overwhelmingly working class; the majority of its election funds still come from the unions. The unions, as this year's Labour Party conference demonstrated beyond doubt, are still organically connected to the Labour Party in a manner that makes a mockery of the idea that Labour is a second Tory party. There was no revolt over the Private Finance Initiative [PFI], successful or otherwise, by the mass organisations of the working class at either the Tory or the Liberal Democrat conferences. Such a revolt is only possible at the Labour Party conference because there remains a strong organisational bond between the unions, especially the union leaders, and the Labour Party.

The intense contradiction between the leaderships of reformist organisations and their working class supporters is a central aspect of the contemporary political scene. But the fact that neither reformist consciousness nor reformist organisation has disappeared from this picture makes the issue of how revolutionaries relate to these forces absolutely crucial.

The united front approach

Some workers who are disillusioned with the Labour Party will simply decide to support another socialist organisation, like the SSP [Scottish Socialist Party] or the Socialist Alliance. They will suddenly see, more or less in one glance, the failures of Labour and the possibilities of a socialist alternative. But these people are, at the moment, a minority.

The majority who are breaking from Labour do so unevenly, partially, and at different speeds over different issues. They may be appalled at Labour over the "war on terrorism" but still vote Labour in elections. They may hate PFI, and join with revolutionaries in their unions to fight the government and Labour councils over this issue, but still support the existing political fund in the unions. They may protest alongside revolutionaries against the Nazis, hate David Blunkett's attitude to refugees, but still retain their membership of the Labour Party.

This is why Nick McKerrell is wrong to assume that it would simply be tidier if all these issues could be bundled together in one socialist organisation. Arguing against the SWP's participation in a wide range of different united fronts, he says, "If all these campaigns attract broad support, how much stronger would it be if a unified pluralist socialist party could take up these issues across England the way that has been done in Scotland?"3

The answer is that the movement would not be stronger at all. It would be weaker. People who are willing to join with socialists in fighting against war are not necessarily socialists themselves, and we should not assume that they agree with us about asylum seekers or anti-capitalism. People who are willing to fight the Nazis may not agree with socialists about the war. This is why each united front must be constructed specifically with a particular aim in mind. Underestimating the variety and unevenness of consciousness in the working class restricts the numbers involved to those who already consider themselves socialists or, at the minimum, share a complex of interlocking ideas with socialists. This is the quick way to arrive at a sectarian model of the party and a conception of the united front as no more than a party front.

The fact of uneven consciousness in the working class movement means that it is simply counterproductive to turn our backs on the united front approach. It will not do to tell such people, as Murray Smith does, that they are part of "the bourgeoisification of social democracy", or to argue that to address them as "reformist or even social democrat, not to mention socialist, is a misuse of language".4

What is needed is a careful discussion about the forms of organisation that are necessary to maximise the unity of the working class in struggle, and at the same time give revolutionaries and reformists the chance to discuss their wider differences. In the course of such discussions, the revolutionaries will hope that their ideas, and the example of their conduct of the struggle, will prove sufficiently convincing that reformist workers join revolutionary organisations. But this cannot be achieved unless the immediate aim of the united front is to provide the most effective fighting organisation for both reformists and revolutionaries. Neither can it be done by simply lecturing Labour Party supporters along the lines of, "You lot are just new Tories—join the real socialists".

The first point to be made about Murray Smith's treatment of the united front is that it is self-contradictory. Murray claims the disappearance of reformism with regard to the Labour Party, but is then forced to admit that the Stop the War Coalition, like the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, "involves forces which are revolutionary, reformist or representing different interests". This is rather an understatement about an organisation that put 400,000 people on the streets of London on September 28 in the biggest political demonstration since the second world war, and which binds together many Labour MPs, the support of eleven national unions, the representatives of Muslim organisations, the Green Party, the support of CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] and the revolutionary left.

Murray's account is also factually incorrect. He describes the Anti-Nazi League as a front for the SWP. Yet on three crucial occasions—in the late 1970s at the time of the rise of the National Front, in the early 1990s when Derek Beackon was elected as a BNP [British National Party] councillor in east London, and again today—the ANL has successfully mobilised tens of thousands against the fascists. It could do so only because it bound together revolutionaries and sections of the Labour and trade union movement. The ANL is supported by 17 national unions including the PCS, GMB, CWU, MSF, FBU and RMT. The ANL steering committee elected at the ANL conference includes Labour MPs John Cryer and Mark Hendrick, Labour MEP Glyn Ford and Len Duvall from the Greater London Authority, plus representatives from the national executives of the FBU, CWU and TSSA. Of course we would like to have the forces to oblige the Labour Party and the TUC as a whole to participate in a united front of this kind. But at present the ANL seems to be a fairly effective example of the united front approach.

Finally, Murray is theoretically flawed because he seems to limit his definition of the united front to single issue campaigns of limited duration (i.e., the kind of campaigns that have been most common on the British left in recent years). But this is far too narrow a definition. Indeed, in the work most commonly associated with systematically elaborating the idea of the united front, Trotsky's writings on fascism in the 1930s, we find an altogether broader approach.

The trade unions are, for instance, described as "the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle" because they unite revolutionaries and reformists in the common struggle over wages and conditions. Trade unions are of course neither single issue nor temporary organisations. Moreover, Trotsky describes the soviets themselves as united fronts: "The soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power". The soviets were of course permanent bodies with their own executives, subcommittees, military apparatus, newspapers and fundraising arms.

The need for a united front approach, even during the insurrection itself, stems from the fact that reformism and reformist organisation cannot be simply declared null and void because of the reactionary politics of reformist leaders.

Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets. But historical experience bears witness to the fact that there is no basis whatever for the expectation that … the Communist Party can succeed in occupying such an undisputed and absolutely commanding position in the workers' ranks, prior to the proletarian overturn.5

It seems that if, at one extreme, the trade unions and, at the other, the soviets can be described as united fronts, we are not making any great theoretical innovation in describing the Socialist Alliance as a united front of a special type. Murray Smith may here be led astray by his own narrow conception of the united front. Murray and Nick McKerrell seem to think that no organisation that has a party-type structure can be described as a united front. The Socialist Alliance certainly has all the attributes of a party—membership, manifesto and policies, conferences, and elected leaders. And to voters in the elections it appears, as it should, as a party.

But in its political construction it is a united front because it brings together former Labour Party members who are not revolutionary socialists and those, like the SWP, who are revolutionaries. Its program, broad as it is, represents the minimum acceptable to the revolutionaries and the maximum acceptable to the former Labour Party members. In its executive, the SWP members are a small minority.

The SSP is different, but not necessarily better. Some eleven of its fourteen executive members are all from one grouping, and all of them are revolutionary Marxists. They have taken a strategic decision not to build a revolutionary party but to build a broad socialist party. Consequently they have a lower political condition for membership than a revolutionary party, but have been less successful at building a heterogeneous political profile than the Socialist Alliance. More importantly, the SSP often presents itself with the kind of arrogance that Murray Smith believes is the special preserve of revolutionary sects. Precisely because it is dismissive of the need for the united front (or pretends that every united front must really be a party front), the SSP appears to think that every broad campaign should be under the party's own banner or dominated by SSP forces.

The paradox is that the broad party structure supposed to banish the old sectarianism ends up recreating just such attitudes with regard to reformist workers, who stubbornly refuse simply to throw up their hands and join the SSP on being told that they are merely "new Tories". This is why, for all the genuinely admirable electoral success that the SSP has achieved, its record of mobilising for Genoa and other anti-capitalist events, and against the war in Afghanistan and now the war drive on Iraq, is much weaker than that of the SWP and the united fronts it has initiated in Britain. Likewise it is the much newer Socialist Alliance that has led the way on the battle over the political fund, with its 1,000-strong conference and strong intervention at union conferences this year. Neither does the SSP have any industrial united front work that compares with the rank and file papers initiated by the SWP, especially those in the CWU and RMT.

This is not simply a question of whether or not an organisation takes the correct position on, for instance, opposition to war or fighting the Nazis. The SSP has of course taken very similar positions to the SWP on both these issues and a host of other critical questions. But the issue is not words and policies but deeds and actions. The point at issue is whether a party constituted like the SSP can mobilise the same forces as a revolutionary organisation relating to others through the united front.

The reason that these dissonances occur is that the broad party model forces unity where there is principled difference between reform and revolution (by pretending this distinction is no longer valid), and breeds schism by insisting on party primacy where there should be common action in the united front (by pretending it is no longer necessary). Nick McKerrell makes this bias explicit. While conceding that united front campaigns may still be necessary over certain issues, he insists that "the historical role for Marxists today is to form new unified pluralist socialist parties which will act as a beacon to the working class and youth politicised by the anti-globalisation movement".6

But genuine unity in action depends on separation on matters of principle such as reform and revolution. We cannot properly determine those immediate issues on which we can unite unless we also properly, and organisationally, separate over matters of principle. If we are constantly paralysed by arguments over matters of principle inside a broad party, we are unable to coherently decide those tactical issues over which we are able to act alongside others without compromising ourselves.

Once we have made an organisational separation over principles, it is all the easier to make agreements with others over immediate questions on which we agree. This is the point Lenin made to the Italian revolutionaries when they left the old Socialist Party dominated by Turrati. He said, "Split from Turrati in order to unite with Turrati".

The need for a revolutionary party

The need for a revolutionary organisation never simply rested on the existence of reformist organisation, as Murray Smith implies. The justification for a revolutionary organisation actually rests on the nature of three other more fundamental characteristics of capitalist society: the state, the capitalist class, and the nature of working class consciousness.

If the nature of the capitalist state had been transformed in the last ten years, then the argument against a revolutionary party might have some validity. If the state had become somehow more amenable to simple pressure from a mass movement, if socialism were possible without a complete overthrow of the old state apparatus, then the argument for a party that does not have this as one of its declared aims would gain credence. But there has been no such transformation. The state's readiness to act against its own population, even in the parliamentary democracies, is still as great as ever. Doubt on this issue was banished at the demonstration in Genoa in 2001, and the name Carlo Giuliani is there to remind us of the fact.

Neither has the hierarchy of economic power and its immunity from popular pressure diminished in the last decade. Now more than ever it seems obvious that the economic power of the capitalist class will not be taken from them without the complete transformation of society. A party that explains this necessity to a new generation now more alive to this argument than any since the early 1970s is still a vital requirement.

Finally, the very nature of working class consciousness is that it is uneven. Some workers, through their practical and intellectual experience of the labour movement, come to political consciousness faster than others. The most effective way for this minority to relate to the wider working class movement is for them to assemble in a separate organisation that can then influence others by the clarity of its analysis and the coherence of its actions. If the more politically conscious and the less politically conscious coexist in the same organisation, theoretical confusion and practical paralysis result.

This was the weakness of the POUM in the Spanish Revolution and of the USPD in the German Revolution. It was the key difference between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg while the latter remained in the SPD. As George Lukács observed:

Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were agreed politically and theoretically about the need to combat opportunism. The conflict between them lay in their answers to the question of whether or not the campaign against opportunism should be conducted as an intellectual struggle within the revolutionary party … or whether it was to be resolved on the level of organisation.7

Murray Smith asserts that the SSP has not wavered from the tactical positions that revolutionary socialists should take on matters of the hour, even though it has abandoned the idea of a Leninist party. But this is a deceptive generalisation. It is deceptive because the SSP retains a leadership dominated by revolutionary Marxists. It is living off accumulated intellectual capital. And it is not yet of a size where that leadership has been challenged by new members not trained in the same revolutionary politics. What will happen as the SSP grows if there is not a renewed commitment to revolutionary politics? Can such coherence be maintained merely by a loose attachment to the day to day positions common to both revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries?

Murray Smith relies on the strength of the Marxist current within the SSP to ensure its future direction. But this simply reproduces the dilemma that faced Rosa Luxemburg—even if the Marxists win the intellectual argument, how can they effectively translate this into the united action of the whole party when a substantial section of the party disagrees in general and in the specific with its Marxist component?

Would it not be better to be united in a common organisation, like the Socialist Alliance, with those comrades with whom we agree on a broad range of basic socialist politics but retain the independence of action, for them and for us, on those matters of principle on which we disagree? This approach preserves the virtues of united broad organisation without pretending that broader issues of reform and revolution have either disappeared or have no bearing on strategic and tactical issues.

And although Murray Smith protests that there is no ideological confusion attendant on abandoning the Leninist theory of the party, it seems from his own recent articles that this is not the case. In his "Notes on the Workers' Party", Murray Smith writes as if the whole perspective of building revolutionary organisations is redundant. But in his polemic with the SWP in the most recent article, he writes as if the formation of broad parties is simply the most effective way for the revolutionary left to increase its influence in the present conjuncture. If the former is true, then why remain even a Marxist current within a broad class struggle party? Why not dissolve all distinctively revolutionary organisation? But if the latter is true, when will the revolutionaries reveal their true colours to the comrades who have joined their organisation on the understanding that it was not committed to revolutionary politics?

All this begins to look rather like the old Militant's relationship with the Labour Party. At the heart of it is a refusal to acknowledge that an independent revolutionary party, combining with others in united front organisations, can be more effective than a broad socialist party that has made it the founding condition of its politics that the distinction between reform and revolution is no longer operative in modern politics.

This discussion is still ongoing in the SSP, and we welcome the opportunity to take part in it. The SSP is indeed a bold attempt to break the inertia into which the left had fallen during the long years of the downturn. Certainly the SSP has been electorally successful. And everyone on the left can learn from this success. Yet it is also clear that such electoral success is not the privileged acquisition of one type of party. Similar percentages of the vote have been gained by a wide variety of left-wing organisations—by a refounded Communist Party in Italy, by a revolutionary organisation, the LCR, in France, and even by a sectarian organisation like Lutte Ouvrière, also in France. It is also clear that the votes obtained by the Socialist Alliance, like that of Paul Foot in the mayoral contest in Hackney, are now beginning to compare more favourably with those of the SSP. And the SSP has not resolved some wider critical strategic issues.

We are as yet only in the foothills of a revival in working class struggle. The most difficult struggles and the toughest decisions still lie ahead. We can only expect to emerge victorious from these trials if we prepare for them with the utmost care today. We need the deepest possible roots in the new movements and the working class. And this requires that we work with renewed urgency to create united organisations of working class people capable of advancing the struggle on the most pressing issues of the day. But we also need roots in our own tradition. And this tradition speaks emphatically on this issue—there is no substitute for building a revolutionary party.


1. On the downturn, see S. Jeffreys, “Striking into the 1980s”, International Socialism 5, Summer 1979; T. Cliff, “The Balance of Class Forces in Britain Today”, International Socialism 6, Autumn 1979; A. Callinicos, “The Rank and File Movement Today”, International Socialism 17, Autumn 1982. On Women’s Voice, see L. James and A. Paczuska, “Socialism Needs Feminism”, International Socialism 14, Autumn 1981. Tony Cliff’s reply was Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, London, 1984, some chapters of which originally appeared as articles in International Socialist Journal. Lindsey German’s response can be found in Sex, Class and Socialism, London, 1989.

2. N. McKerrell, “The United Front Today”, Frontline 8, September-October 2002, <>.

3. Ibid.

4. The first description is from Murray Smith’s most recent article in Frontline. The second is from his “Notes on the Workers’ Party”.

5. L. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Penguin, 1975, pp. 170-1.

6. N. McKerrell, op. cit.

7. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, 1971, p. 284.

 [John Rees is a leader of the British Socialist Workers Party and editor of its International Socialist Journal, where this article first appeared in the Winter 2002 issue.]