The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front 
By Murray Smith
- SWP history
- The transformation of social democracy
- The united front
- What kind of party?
- Some points in conclusion
John Rees' contribution to the debate over what kind of party socialists should be building today deals with fundamental issues [see page 82]. As such it is very welcome, as is the reproduction in International Socialist Journal of the two articles from Frontline by Nick McKerrell and myself. The issues in this debate are also in one form or another being debated internationally. The three main points that I want to take up here are the nature of the Labour Party and similar parties elsewhere, the united front today and the question of broad and/or revolutionary parties, of what kind of party we need today.
It is of course necessary to see the development of the SWP, as of other organisations, in the context of the class struggle. I broadly agree with John Rees on his periodisation of the class struggle in Britain since 1945, with one slight difference. I am not sure that the term "downturn" is the most appropriate to describe the period from 1975 to the end of the 1980s, marked by big class battles on both the political and industrial fronts. What was involved was not so much a decline in class struggle, as a change in the relationship of forces to the detriment of the working class, as a result of the crisis and the victorious offensive by the employers and the Thatcher government. The result of this offensive was of course a series of defeats on both the industrial and political fronts, the notable victory of the movement against the poll tax being insufficient to reverse the general trend. It is only after this series of defeats imposed on the working class that we can talk about a real downturn in the class struggle in the 1990s.
The real point that needs to be stressed, however, is that the choices made by the SWP were not the only ones possible, as the experience of Militant demonstrates. It would be wrong to assume that the present (relative) strength of the SWP and weakness of the Socialist Party retrospectively justify the SWP's choices. The Socialist Party's situation today is not a consequence of the mass campaigns Militant led in the 1980s and early 1990s but of other problems—waiting too long to come out of the Labour Party, the split with Grant that was perhaps necessary but badly handled, the hesitation waltz of the open turn of the mid-1990s followed by the retreat into isolation. All of that was compounded by a defect that it shares with the SWP: an incapacity to resolve serious differences by an open debate involving the confrontation of different options.
The question of the nature of the Labour Party in Britain and of social democratic parties elsewhere is of fundamental importance. In relation to the question of what kind of parties we should be building today, the qualitative transformation that these parties have undergone (or not undergone, according to the SWP) is a decisive factor.
John Rees writes: "If Labour is finished, the whole political territory that it previously occupied is, potentially at least, open to a new socialist party", and "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". These remarks could be interpreted as encouraging, indicating that if the SWP changed its analysis of the Labour Party, then it might also change its view of what kind of party is needed today.
It is, however, doubtful that their analysis of the Labour Party is the reason for the SWP's now quite clear refusal to build a broad socialist party on the lines of the SSP in England and Wales. In the first place, while maintaining that nothing fundamental has changed, they have de facto recognised that a space has opened up on the electoral level by re-launching the Socialist Alliance and engaging in election campaigns, a fairly radical departure for an organisation which, apart from a brief period in the late 1970s, had not only completely neglected elections but almost made a principle out of this neglect.
Their change of position on the question of the unions' political funds is a further recognition that something has changed. Secondly, John Rees' defence of the unchanged character of the Labour Party is rather perfunctory and unconvincing. The main thrust of his article is clearly to defend the necessity of building a revolutionary organisation like the SWP today, rather than a broad socialist party like the SSP. This is in line with the efforts deployed by the SWP leadership to demonstrate that the experience of the SSP is not a model, or not the only model, and certainly not for England, and to reaffirm the primacy of building their own organisation. John Rees' defence of the SWP's conception of the united front seems to flow less from his analysis of the Labour Party than from considerations linked to building the SWP.
The question of the Labour Party remains important, however. And there is very little sign of the SWP changing its view on this in the near future, certainly not in John Rees' article. What is most striking is not the fact that they have not arrived at the same conclusions as us, but that their vision of the Labour Party remains remarkably static, as if nothing had changed qualitatively since 1920.
Our contention is that there has indeed been a qualitative transformation of the Labour Party. Furthermore, this is an international phenomenon, affecting all social democratic parties in the advanced capitalist countries as well as the Left Democrats (the majority of the former Italian Communist Party) in Italy. Comparable changes, which go beyond the scope of this article, have occurred in relation to a series of working-class, populist or nationalist parties in the Third World.
The origins of this transformation can be dated with some precision. The long postwar boom definitively came to an end with the recession of 1974-1975. The period 1968-1975 had been marked by revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal and in Britain by the biggest wave of working-class struggles since 1945. In each of those countries, the social democratic and Stalinist parties played a key role in defusing situations that were potentially dangerous for capitalism; these parties used their influence over the working class to stabilise capitalist rule. They had already done so after the first world war, in the 1930s and in 1945.
John Rees points out, correctly, that "in a period of economic expansion the Labour Party could both implement reforms and remain within the parameters of the capitalist system". He adds that later there "opened an era of reformism without reforms".
But we are no longer in a period of reformism without reforms. We are more than twenty-five years into an offensive of the capitalist class internationally. This offensive began when it became clear that there was no quick and easy way out of the crisis of the 1970s. Its aim is quite simply to take back everything that was gained by the working class after 1945 and subsequently, especially after 1968, to dismantle the whole form of bourgeois domination, the "postwar consensus" that had existed since 1945. There is no need here to go over this offensive in detail, which takes the form of privatisation, deregulation and restructuring, as well as increasing attacks on democratic rights and, on the international level, a series of wars.
Crucially, the neo-liberal program has been implemented by governments of both right and left, something which could be demonstrated in detail in relation to virtually every country in western Europe. In Britain the bourgeois counter-offensive did not begin, as is often assumed (though not by the SWP), with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. As the Financial Times explained in September 1999, what it aptly calls the "counter-revolutions" in Britain and the USA began under Callaghan and Carter. After the transient victories of the Labour left in the early 1980s and the split of the SDP, Kinnock re-centred the party and prepared the way for Blairism, the culmination of the process of bourgeoisification of Labour, symbolised by the addition of the adjective "New".
In France, after a brief hesitation, Mitterrand imposed the policy of "rigour" in 1983, and the Socialist Party not only abandoned any perspective of the "break with capitalism" that it had talked about in the 1970s but tamely accepted the dictatorship of the market. In Spain the neo-liberal offensive was conducted ruthlessly, by the Socialist governments under Felipe Gonzalez from 1982 to 1996.
It is not just a case of social democratic parties carrying out some anti-working class policies. That has happened before. There have been many right-wing socialist governments. It is of them becoming partners in a whole system of alternating governments of right and left which pursue essentially the same policies, the policies dictated by big capital.
The policies in question consist not just of managing capitalism in a general way without implementing reforms but of systematically carrying out the neo-liberal counter-reforms that are demanded. There is no sign that capitalism will become any more capable or willing to concede lasting reforms—on the contrary. There is therefore no prospect, no room for manoeuvre for social democracy to return to the "golden age" (which appears more and more clearly as an Indian summer) of 1945-1975.
Alex Callinicos has written that "reformism represents an ideological compromise between capitalist and revolutionary world-views". It should be added that the compromise was always in favour of the former. But there was a compromise. Where is the compromise when left governments privatise, deregulate, cut back public services and so on just like their right-wing counterparts? This lasting transformation of the role of social democracy has led through an accumulation of quantitative changes to a qualitative change in the relationship between these parties and the working class.
Fundamentally, in the present phase of capitalism, reforms are not on the agenda. That does not mean that no reforms can ever be conceded in the face of a mass movement. Nor does it mean that currents cannot appear proposing reforms. Nor, that reformist ideas do not exist in the working class. It does mean that capitalism cannot make the kind of concessions it could after 1945 and that there is therefore no basis for a stable, durable reformism that can maintain the allegiance of the working class by delivering the goods. The reason the socialist parties have without exception adopted the neo-liberal agenda is that there is no middle way: the only alternative is to take the anti-capitalist road, and they are not up for that. That will not change.
The transformation of these parties into direct agents of neo-liberal capitalism is reflected in their changed relations with both the working class and the capitalist class. While admitting that the contradiction between Labour and the working class has been pushed to extremes though "not yet broken", John Rees largely ignores these changes and is guilty of factual errors and questionable judgments. He seems to be clinging to straws to demonstrate that Labour is still a "capitalist workers' party".
What are the changes that have occurred? First of all, the social composition of the Labour Party has changed. It is very much open to question that "its individual members are overwhelmingly working class", as John Rees claims. A 1997 survey of Labour Party members found that only fifteen per cent were in the "manual working class" category, while sixty-four per cent were in the "white collar, salaried" category. Of course, many of the latter could be working class in the Marxist definition of the term. But a significant fact is that in 1997 only twenty-nine per cent of Labour Party members were trade union members, down from thirty-eight per cent in 1994. That hardly fits with an overwhelmingly working class membership. What is unmistakable is that membership has fallen, from 400,000 in 1996 to less than 260,000 today. Local parties are increasingly empty shells. A third of constituency parties didn't bother to send delegates to the 2000 party conference—hardly surprising, since nothing much gets decided there any more. It is striking that at both the Scottish and British Labour Party conferences last year the opposition to PFI/PPP [Private Finance Initiative/Public-Private Partnerships] came from the unions, with two-thirds of constituency delegates supporting Blair. A majority of constituency parties also supported Blair on the question of war against Iraq. This is a big change from the 1980s, but already in 1995 no less than ninety-four per cent of individual members voted to get rid of Clause Four [of the Labour Party constitution, calling for "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange"].
John Rees is quite simply mistaken in thinking that the majority of Labour's election funding still comes from the unions. In 1992, sixty-six per cent of the party's expenditure came from the unions; in 1997 it was forty per cent, and in 2001 it was thirty-three per cent.
Certainly the majority of Labour's electorate is working class. But that proves nothing about the party's class nature. In an advanced capitalist country, any party has to win working class votes to get elected, and such bourgeois formations as the Peronists in Argentina, Fianna Fail in Ireland, the Democrats in the USA and Christian Democratic parties in a number of countries all rely heavily on working class votes. It is certainly true that those workers who still vote Labour will be more organised and more class-conscious than those who vote Tory or Liberal Democrat. But it is no longer true that they are necessarily more class-conscious than those who abstain or who in Scotland vote for the SNP [Scottish National Party].
Nor are the links with the unions in themselves decisive in determining the class nature of a party. (Most European social democratic parties have never had the same formal links with the unions as the Labour Party in Britain.) Without being affiliated to it, the AFL-CIO systematically supports and funds the Democratic Party (to the tune of $48 million in 2000).
What is decisive in deciding the class nature of a party is the way in which a series of factors (the party's policies, its membership, its electorate, links with the unions etc.) combine to determine how the working class relates to that party. Does it consider it as its party, does it trust it to carry out measures broadly in favour of the working class and defend its interests, albeit within the framework of capitalism? In a previous period, most workers voted for the Labour Party because they felt it represented them. If they wanted to engage in political action, they joined it. Now workers in Britain and elsewhere vote for the Labour Party and its sister parties, if they do vote for them, as a lesser evil—and increasingly find they aren't. (The Jospin government, which tried to present itself as different from Blair, privatised more than its two right-wing predecessors together.)
As for the Communist parties, it would not be correct to describe them as simply capitalist parties. But those which retain any influence are faced with the choice between remaining in a dwindling Stalinist ghetto (as in Portugal and Greece) or becoming satellites of social democracy (most clearly in France). The French Communist Party in particular is thrashing about trying to find a living space between the Socialist Party and the far left. Only blunders by the latter could give it some breathing space.
The conclusion must be that the social democratic parties, and to a very large extent the Communist parties, are finished as vehicles for working class aspirations. Certainly there are still some socialists in them. There are also socialists in the SNP or other nationalist parties and in the Greens. But they are not about to transform those parties into vehicles for socialist change. And what is absolutely striking, faced with the bourgeois transformation of social democracy, is that there has not been one serious left split anywhere in Europe. As for the Communist parties, Rifondazione [PRC] stands out as the exception, as a party which has chosen an anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist road, though something positive may yet emerge from the Spanish and to a lesser extent French parties.
The task before us is precisely to build new socialist parties with the aim of "occupying the whole political territory" and even more to reconstruct the entire working class movement on anti-capitalist, class struggle lines. How? Along what lines of demarcation? The demarcation between reform and revolution? Are we really confronted with a situation today where the dividing line in the working class movement is between those who want to carry through a socialist transformation through the institutions of the bourgeois state, and those who want to do so by revolutionary means? What we are actually confronted with is a division between those who, while perhaps opposing neo-liberalism, accept the framework of capitalism and at the most seek to "humanise" it, and those who defend an anti-capitalist, socialist perspective. That leads us to occupy the space left open by the evolution of the traditional workers' parties by building parties that start from the struggles of today and defend the perspective of socialism.
The struggles of today can mean fighting the closure of hospitals and community centres, opposing PFI/PPP, supporting the fire-fighters or demonstrating in Genoa or Florence. For most of the 1990s, socialists faced an uphill task, first of all to convince people that it was possible to fight and win, and secondly to rehabilitate socialism as the alternative to capitalism. Now, with the development of the anti-globalisation movement, a new rise in working class struggles, changes in the unions and the development of the anti-war movement, the task is easier.
John Rees claims that I have a narrow view of the united front. I would reply that his own is somewhat too broad to be functional in the present debate. Yes, Trotsky said that the trade union was the rudimentary form of the united front and the soviet the highest. But by approaching the question from that angle, the danger is that the united front becomes everything and at the same time nothing. The trade union is the basic form of working class unity around the simple idea that workers have collective interests to defend against the employers. The soviet is the highest because it is the embryonic form of workers' power. Neither of these organisational forms of workers' unity has a tactical character.
The trade union is a permanent necessity to defend workers as long as capitalism exists. Soviets, organs of working class self-organisation under whatever name, are a strategic necessity for the working class to come to power and begin the process of socialist transformation. I was dealing with the united front as a tactic, with what John Rees himself calls "an agreement for action between reformists and revolutionaries, the definition of a united front".
The original united front tactic of the Communist International was formulated to respond to a situation where, in spite of the negative experience of the first world war and the positive example of the Russian Revolution, a large part of the working class still followed the reformists and it was impossible for the Communists to engage them in common action without proposing an agreement to their leaders. That is no longer the case. Trotsky wrote in 1922, "If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our immediate practical slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form." Now "we" (the SWP, the SSP, the LCR—the radical and revolutionary left) are not simply able to unite the working masses around our own banner. But on the other hand, it is not an exaggeration to say that we can "skip over" the traditional parties of the working class, which means that the united front is not posed today in the form that it was in 1922, and indeed much later.
To mobilise workers and youth today there is no need to propose united fronts to the Labour Party or the French Socialist and Communist parties, because first of all they have themselves very little ability to mobilise, and secondly they are not capable of using their authority as in the past to block workers' struggles, to demobilise.
That implies a change of tactics for both traditional far left organisations and new socialist parties. It does not, however, mean that the question of the united front is not posed. It is posed in different ways. In particular there are organisations, the trade unions, usually led by reformists, sometimes right-wing reformists, which do retain the loyalty of workers. It is quite possible to conclude united fronts with union leaders to oppose privatisations, defend union rights, support a strike etc.
A current case in point is in Italy. Rifondazione, alone at first, called for the nationalisation of fiat. This was later supported by not only the CGIL, the largest and most left-wing union confederation, but by the two others as well. This creates the basis for a united campaign, with all the contradictions and conflicts that can be imagined, since most of the union leaders are far from being anti-capitalist. Significantly the parties of the late Olive Tree centre-left government, including the ex-Communist Left Democrats, did not support this demand, calling only for better compensation for sacked workers. Such united fronts with union leaders can also be posed in France and certainly in Britain.
It is also possible to build broad united fronts on the question of war or against the far right or in defence of democratic rights. But there is a difference here with struggles on the economic front. On the latter terrain, the unions are and always will be present. Other terrains have been abandoned by the traditional parties as they have evolved rightwards.
The first example was probably the movement against the poll tax, which was largely led by revolutionary socialists, especially Militant. A current example is the anti-war movement in Britain, which is largely led by the far left, especially the SWP, whereas in the past the Labour left and the Communist Party would have played an important role. Such campaigns should be open to everyone who agrees with their objectives, including Labour Party members. But prior agreement with the reformists is not a condition of building a movement; no special tactic is required.
In the mobilisations against Le Pen last year, the Socialist Party was present, though outnumbered by the revolutionary left. But millions of people took to the streets not because of any call by the Socialist Party or indeed the far left, but because of their opposition to the National Front.
In the present period it is a question of developing new forms of unity that correspond to the present phase of recomposition of the working-class movement.
Is the ANL [Anti-Nazi League] a united front? It is certainly a single issue campaign open to anyone. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a campaign, even one which lasts for twenty-five years, if it continues to fulfil a role. It is also widely considered to be an SWP front. Why? First of all because the impressive list of sponsors that John Rees cites, are precisely that—sponsors. The only political organisation that supports the ANL is the SWP, and it is the SWP that decides when and how to use it. Secondly, a real mass united front campaign, such as the anti-poll tax campaign, had local committees and open democratic structures, including annual conferences and an elected leadership. That is not, apparently, how the ANL functions.
ATTAC in France has 30,000 members and local branches all over the country. We could debate whether it is a united front of a special kind or a new type of social/political movement. The political orientations of its leadership are contestable, and there is a problem with its lack of accountability to the membership. But nobody calls it a front for any political organisation, though it has many members who belong to political organisations.
Globalise Resistance has about 2000 members and no local branches. How can you have democratic functioning without local branches? That is why, although not everyone in Globalise Resistance is in the SWP, it is widely considered as an SWP front. SWP members may not accept that the ANL and Globalise Resistance are fronts for their party, but they must have come across many people who think so. Perhaps they should ask themselves why.
John Rees poses the question at the very beginning of his article, "The issue is this, what kind of party should socialists build? Should it be a broad socialist party or a revolutionary organisation?" From the beginning the two are counterposed. He writes, "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." Let me start by clarifying my position. I am convinced that the building of revolutionary organisations of the type of the SWP, LCR, etc. in their present form, is becoming redundant and that these organisations should contribute to the building of new broad socialist parties and function as currents within them. I do not believe that the strategic perspective of building revolutionary parties, that is parties capable of leading a revolution, a socialist transformation of society, is redundant. I am convinced that the role of revolutionary Marxists today is to build broad socialist parties while defending their own Marxist positions within them, with the aim, not of building a revolutionary faction with an "entrist" perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise. I would put the question as follows: "To overthrow capitalism and carry out a socialist transformation of society we need a mass revolutionary party. Starting from where we are today, what is the best way to get there?" When John Rees counterposes "broad socialist party" to "revolutionary organisation", he is describing the two choices that confront revolutionary socialists today. However, when he later counterposes a broad socialist party to a revolutionary party, he is wrong. Building a broad socialist party today may in fact be the best way to advance towards a mass revolutionary party tomorrow.
First of all, what would be the necessary attributes of a revolutionary party? From our point of view, the "Aims of the ISM" which appear in every issue of Frontline seek to trace the broad outlines. In particular, such a party would have to be clear that it is not sufficient just to take control of the existing state machine but necessary to replace it with democratic organs of working-class power, that the working class has to maintain its political independence in relation to all other classes and to the state, that the struggle is international and that imperialism is the enemy.
But that is not enough. A party does not approach a revolutionary situation with a ready-made program which it simply has to apply. We will have to resolve questions that history has not yet posed. Bolshevism was not born in 1903 as a faction or in 1912 as a party fully armed to fulfil the tasks placed before it. It evolved through conflict and contradiction before, during and after 1917. The Bolshevik Party was already a mass revolutionary party in 1912-14. But it was only in April 1917 that it adopted the program and the orientation that would enable it to lead the revolution, and it was traversed by sharp debates as to what to do up until the eve of the revolution and indeed after. The situation in Argentina today confronts us with problems that are new. How do you pose the question of power when a large part of the working class is unemployed and when it is precisely that part of the class which is in the vanguard of the struggle and of the process of self-organisation? We can integrate the lessons of the past into our program, but we will always have to resolve new problems and make strategic and tactical choices in concrete situations that we cannot anticipate. Organisations which think that today they already have the program that will enable them to lead the revolution are deluding themselves and others.
Secondly, we are not talking just about building a revolutionary party. We have to build a mass revolutionary party—that is, a party which has real roots in the working class and indeed other sectors of society. Only such a party is capable of simultaneously learning from the working class and giving leadership to it and at a certain moment winning the support of the majority. The difference between such a party and the existing far left groups is not just quantitative but qualitative. As Alex Callinicos points out, "The history of the workers' movement shows very clearly that mass revolutionary parties do not develop through a linear process in which a small Marxist group gradually grows bigger and bigger by recruiting more and more members—like history more generally, the development of revolutionary parties involves qualitative leaps and sharp breaks". I would argue that in England today the road to a mass revolutionary party does not lie in the linear growth of the SWP nor in a thoroughly illusory fusion with a leftward split from the Labour Party. It lies in creating a broad socialist party that can appeal to workers disillusioned with the Labour Party. It is the alienation of the Labour Party and similar parties elsewhere from their traditional membership and electorate that makes it both necessary and possible to build new socialist parties that can acquire a mass character.
The party will have to be democratic and pluralist, to allow the organised expression not only of different opinions but of different political platforms. This is not an optional extra. It is necessary in order to resolve the many problems that will occur between now and the revolution. The absence of the organised confrontation of different points of view in organisations like the SWP, the Socialist Party, the SLP [Socialist Labour Party], Lutte Ouvrière and others is a real problem. If you do not allow pluralism in your own organisation today, why should you allow it in a revolutionary party tomorrow?
The tradition of the Bolshevik Party was different. Alex Callinicos argues in the article previously quoted that there were no permanent groupings in the Bolshevik Party, but shifting alignments. That is partly true, but only partly. In the first place, the only period when the Bolshevik Party could function as a mass, open, democratic party was in 1917-21, a period when political events and consequently political alignments and realignments moved very quickly. But even then there were not just conjunctural alignments over Brest-Litovsk or the trade union debate but clearly defined currents such as the Left Communists, the Democratic Centralist current, the Workers' Opposition. Most importantly, party members had the right to organise to defend their views, on a particular question or on a range of questions. The banning of factions in 1921, envisaged as a temporary measure, is widely considered today to have been an error and a contributing factor to the process of bureaucratisation of the party.
Finally, a real, mass, living, growing party will have defined programmatic axes. But it will never be chemically pure. The Bolshevik Party always had rightist, compromising tendencies and ultra-left tendencies. That was even more true for the Communist parties which emerged in Western Europe.
The question is: is it better today to build a revolutionary organisation such as the SWP or a broad party such as the SSP? The answer flows from the changes in the working-class movement. For many years, reformism was completely dominant and revolutionary organisations existed as a minority. The possibility of building mass parties to the left of the reformist parties did not exist so long as workers followed those parties. It exists now.
There are in Britain, in France and in other countries tens of thousands of workers and young people ready to engage in anti-capitalist political action and who can be won to parties that offer a real alternative. There are hundreds of thousands and potentially millions ready to support new parties which offer such an alternative. Is the best way to proceed to ask these workers to come to an existing revolutionary organisation, albeit through a series of campaigns and united fronts? Or is it to create parties that can attract those who refuse the dominant neo-liberal ideology, who are ready to defend a socialist alternative, and to go forward with them?
The dividing line today is between anti-capitalism/socialism and pro-capitalism. That is very clear within the anti-globalisation movement. The opposition is not between revolutionaries and reformists, who have different ideas on how to advance towards socialism. It is between those who think you can combat neo-liberal globalisation without getting rid of capitalism, by going back to a more humanised form of capitalism, and those who realise that neo-liberal globalisation is precisely the contemporary form of capitalism and that it is capitalism that has to be overthrown. Within that framework the SSP as a whole comes down squarely on the side of anti-capitalism.
The idea that the SSP is a mish-mash of reformists and revolutionaries does not correspond to the reality of the party. As Alan McCombes recently put it: "In the SSP there are revolutionary socialists and non-revolutionary socialists working together. Those who are non-revolutionary aren't necessarily consciously anti-Marxist. Rather they are more open to how things may proceed in the future. It remains enough that they support the idea of socialism." [Quoted in Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.] That is a description of the really existing SSP, which gets away from a non-existent polarisation between revolutionaries and reformists. We never said that "the distinction between reform and revolution is no longer operative in modern politics". What we do say is that at this stage of the struggle, the dividing line in the working class movement is between those who accept capitalism and all that goes with it and those who take an anti-capitalist position. And that we unite people on that basis and then deal with the issues as they are posed concretely. The fact that the basis no longer exists for stable, durable reforms and the absence of serious reformist currents does not mean that the distinction between reform and revolution is no longer operative.
In Europe today the touchstone is: what is the centre of gravity of the party? Is it action in the workplaces and communities or is it presence in the institutions of bourgeois democracy? Evidently both are necessary, but which one is fundamental is today an indication of how we see socialist transformation coming about_by the self-organisation of the working class or by a parliamentary process. In Latin America, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, the same question is posed even more starkly.
In Europe reformism today will be weaker and less consistent than during the postwar period because the material base for it has been undermined, making it easier to win workers to a consistent class struggle anti-capitalist position. Workers followed the reformist parties during the postwar boom not irrationally, not because reformist consciousness is somehow `natural', but because it brought them material benefits, which is no longer the case. John Rees is not the first to predict that the Marxists in the SSP will be overwhelmed by reformist currents. The leadership of the CWI [Committee for a Workers' International] and its supporters in Scotland already did that several years ago. They have up to now been proved wrong because they do not understand the kind of party the SSP is. More fundamentally, in my opinion, they do not understand the material roots of the dominance of reformism within the working class.
John Rees describes a relation between Marxists and others in the SSP which does not correspond to the reality. When he asks: "How can they [the Marxists] 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?", he is presumably outlining a hypothetical future situation, certainly not the present.
I am also somewhat mystified as to how John Rees can wonder "when the revolutionaries will reveal their true colours". In the above quote by Alan McCombes, in Frontline and in general, ISM members do not hide their "true colours" as revolutionary socialists. They just do not make it an artificial dividing line or let it prevent them building the SSP along with other party members who would not define themselves, at any rate not at this stage, in that way.
In the article in Green Left Weekly, Alan McCombes is also quoted as saying that "he believes that it will be the political battles around campaign perspectives and tactics that will shape the political development of the SSP. `This is how the party will evolve and achieve political clarification, not so much by abstract debates and discussions.'" This is in fact how parties in general evolve and clarify their positions, in discussions that relate to real events. Why should Marxists lose out in these discussions?
In a party which starts out on the basis of assembling those who are ready to fight against capitalism and for socialism, a party that is rooted in the workplaces and communities, whose centre of gravity is in those workplaces and communities and not in parliamentary institutions, a party that is democratic and not dominated by a bureaucratic apparatus, there is no reason why in an ongoing debate closely tied to the experience of the party, revolutionary Marxist ideas can not become largely dominant.
That goes for the SSP but also for other parties, for example the PRC. The European left has had to sit up and take notice of the PRC because of the role the party has played at Genoa, at Florence and in the anti-war movement. And for those who take more than a superficial look at Italian politics, the massive strike movements of the last few months are not unconnected to the existence of a mass anti-capitalist party. But the PRC has evolved in the way it has through debates related to concrete political choices. For or against supporting the centre-left government, for or against involvement in the anti-globalisation movement? Who should the party's international allies be, the other European Communist parties or the European anti-capitalist conferences, or both? The PRC's politics are not perfect; it could regress; but up to now it has steadily moved leftwards, suffering splits to the right on the way. Crucially, from the very beginning in 1991, it made the choice of breaking with the Stalinist tradition in favour of building a democratic pluralist party.
John Rees, and also Alex Callinicos, argue that the type of party they defend is necessarily more effective in the class struggle. Callinicos claims that "the relative ideological homogeneity of a revolutionary Marxist party gives it a greater capacity for rapid and decisive action than looser, more programmatically ambiguous formations". That seems like common sense, but it doesn't always correspond to reality. We have just spoken about the PRC, a very different party from the SWP. Yet it is this party, broad, heterogeneous and pluralist, which is behind most of the big mobilisations in Italy, working furthermore within broad united fronts. So the choice, neither in Italy nor in Scotland, is not between a narrow revolutionary organisation working through united fronts and a broad socialist party which doesn't.
The comrades' tendency to imagine that only a homogeneous party can be effective is worrying. Because any truly mass revolutionary party would necessarily be impure, heterogeneous and not always very disciplined. The SWP, and it is far from alone in this, tends to perpetuate the myth of a homogeneous Bolshevik party which ironed out its differences and then took united action. In real life, it was rather more complicated than that: in 1917 and subsequently there were not only serious differences, but party members not infrequently argued against each other in public.
In the IST (the SWP's international organisation) internal bulletin Munyaradzi Gwisai of the ISO of Zimbabwe makes some very pertinent points concerning the practice of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. Of course to the extent that a party can become homogeneous through democratic debate, that is an excellent thing. But in a living, contradictory situation, particularly at times of momentous events, there will be differences, there will be majorities and minorities. Gwisai quotes Marcel Liebman to the effect that "The idea that these organs (leading bodies of the party) must, for reasons of efficiency be marked by strict political homogeneity had not yet entered into Communist practice". When it did enter into Communist practice, of course, that was part of the onset of Stalinism. The subsequent adoption and putting into practice of this idea by Trotskyist organisations (most if not all of them at one time or another) was a clear example of the insidious influence of Stalinism on the Trotskyist movement.
When representatives of the SWP refer positively to the SSP, it is usually to recognise its success on the electoral level. Two points need to be made here. First of all, to be able to have electoral success, you have to be able to communicate your ideas to a mass audience in a comprehensible way. To put it mildly, this has not always been the hallmark of the far left in Britain, or elsewhere for that matter. (From this point of view, the Besançenot campaign was a real breakthrough for the LCR, for example). But it is a hallmark of the SSP. The electoral terrain is not to be treated with disdain. It is a vital aspect of building a mass socialist party. It enables working class people to show their support, not just for this or that campaign, which is necessary, but for the general program of the party and the ideas of socialism. And that expression of support in turn becomes a material factor reinforcing the party's authority in the class struggle.
Getting people elected is important. With one MSP, the SSP has made a big impact, and that will be multiplied if the party makes the predicted breakthrough in May 2003. Electoral success is not the be-all and end-all of socialist politics, but it is a key component of a general strategy of winning the support of the majority of working people.
It is seriously mistaken to convey the impression, intentionally or not, that the SSP is primarily an electoralist party. John Rees is obliged to recognise that "the SSP has of course taken very similar positions to the SWP on both these issues (the war and the BNP) and a host of other critical questions. But the issue is not words and policies but deeds and actions." The implication is that, at least on these questions, the SSP is long on words and policies but short on deeds and actions. However, beyond vague affirmations of the superior effectiveness of the SWP, he does not substantiate this, any more than did SW platform member Mark Brown in a recent paper circulated in the SSP.
Even a casual reader of Scottish Socialist Voice might understand that the centre of gravity of the party and of the activity of its members is in the workplaces and the unions, in the communities, occupying community centres, campaigning against housing stock transfer, but also campaigning against the war and against racism.
The SSP does not reject united action with other political forces. We do not refuse to work with members of the Labour Party or the SNP, as can be seen from Tommy Sheridan's initiatives in parliament over warrant sales and free school meals, through the anti-war movement down to local struggles. And it is frankly to underestimate the political intelligence of the party and its members to imply that they approach Labour Party members by telling them that they are part of the bourgeoisification of social democracy or that they are New Tories. We do say that Blair and company are New Tories and that the Labour Party is finished as a working-class party and encourage them to join the SSP. But the fact that some choose to remain in the Labour Party doesn't prevent joint work.
To return to the question of the united front, Nick McKerrell's article has been misinterpreted as counterposing the united front to the idea of a broad socialist party. In fact what he is doing is pointing out that the classical united front is not really appropriate today, adding: "However, this does not negate the idea of a united front in a broader sense". As the conclusion of his article states, "we need to relate the ideas behind the united front to the current period if we are to maintain the rise of socialism in Scotland".
What comes out of his article is that there is in fact no contradiction between a broad socialist party which takes the initiative of political campaigns and seeking wider unity around those campaigns. He also points out very appropriately: "It is not enough to participate and initiate united front campaigns, although that is still necessary over certain issues, and recruit for your own Marxist organisation. That is in essence what Callinicos proposes and is echoed ironically by the leadership of the Committee for a Workers' International who opposed the formation of the SSP in 1998."
At the SWP's congress last October, it was clear that their concept of party-building involves using "united fronts" as a pool for recruitment, with the Marxist Forums serving as the conduit towards the party. That is not the SSP's conception of a united front. In fact, what Nick's article deals with is not only the generally changed conditions in which we have to approach the question of the united front, but specifically a situation in which the SSP is capable as a party of conducting mass campaigns. That is a radical departure from the situation of traditional far left organisations.
Running through the positions of John Rees and Alex Callinicos is the idea that there is a norm for a revolutionary party, represented by existing far-left organisations and in particular the SWP, and that all other parties are to be judged by how far they correspond to this norm. However, the existing far left organisations, even the most open of them, remain narrow and tied to their own particular shibboleths. They are a product of a past phase or phases of the class struggle and the workers' movement.
The task for them now is to invest their intellectual, political and human resources in the building of broader parties and to work in a comradely way to bring the essential conquests of Marxism, the lessons of history, into these new parties. It is not quite the case, as John Rees says at one point, that we would be going back to the situation of Marx and Engels more than a century ago. It is not the case because since then a hundred years of history have passed. The traditions of mass socialist and Communist parties have not been wiped out by the experience of the last twenty years.
New mass parties can be built, probably more quickly than many people imagine today. And it is the case because the often painful, indeed tragic, experience of the twentieth century has enriched the Marxist program. It is at present necessary for Marxist currents to organise as such in new parties. When it is no longer the case, it will be because Marxist ideas have become largely dominant in the party and such separate organisation is no longer necessary. New currents will form, not on the basis of party members' previous origins, but on the basis of new issues and new debates.