Regroupment and the socialist left today

By Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos is a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. His most recent book is Against the Third Way: an anti-capitalist critique.


The millennium was celebrated as marking the entry of the world into an epoch of capitalist prosperity and peace. In reality, the years that followed have been marked by the development of a global economic recession and by the most serious international crisis since the end of the Cold War. In counterpoint to these grim events has been the emergence since the Seattle protests in November 1999 of a worldwide movement in opposition to global capitalism and, increasingly, also to US imperialism's war drive. This has provided the context for a significant revival in Europe of what has come to be known as the radical left - parties to the left of mainstream social democracy. Among the most important developments are the success of Trotskyist candidates in the first round of the French presidential elections in April 2002, the shift leftwards by the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy, and the electoral challenge to New Labour mounted by the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in Britain.

This process is by no means confined to Europe. Latin America, among the greatest victims of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, has experienced the rebirth of the left as a result of a series of spectacular struggles - above all, Argentina's December 2001 rebellion. The London-based international business paper Financial Times has anxiously surveyed these developments in a succession of increasingly gloomy articles. One of these quoted a remark by Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue that could be applied to much of the rest of the continent: "People are taking to the streets in a way we have not seen for some time … In Peru left-wing movements from the 1960s and 1970s that everyone thought were dead are popping up again."1 On the eve of the landslide victory by Lula, leader of the Workers' Party (PT), in the Brazilian presidential elections, the Financial Times reported that, for the Republican right in Washington, "these developments are tantamount to the extension of a new `axis of evil' that already includes Fidel Castro's Cuba and Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela".2

In fact, Lula's victory was a much more ambiguous event. It reflected the strength of Brazil's mass movements - notably the CUT trade union federation and the MST landless movement, which have been in the forefront of the global opposition to neo-liberalism, notably through the World Social Forums held at Porto Alegre. But Lula's election followed the PT's move towards the centre ground by adopting increasingly neo-liberal policies to assuage the financial marketsa pattern all too familiar from the history of European social democracy. Although in this article I concentrate on the processes of regroupment at work in Europe, my analysis may have a bearing on developments in other continents.

Europe's new lefts

The radical left in Europe is a heterogeneous grouping. It encompasses some of the main formations of the revolutionary leftmost notably the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in France and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, the flagship organisations of the two main international Trotskyist tendencies, respectively the Fourth International (FI) and the International Socialist Tendency (IST).3 The PRC, by contrast, has its roots in the Stalinist and left social-democratic traditions, though revolutionaries (including the supporters of the FI and the IST) also participate in it. Finally, the radical left embraces several coalitions - the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, the Red/Green Alliance in Denmark, the Left Bloc in Portugal - and one party, the SSP, that also unite revolutionaries and reformists in their ranks.

These diverse formations are now formally grouped together through the conferences of the European Anti-Capitalist Left, which take place twice a year. The existence of these and other networks connecting the radical left is evidence of a dramatic process of realignment that is under way. The participation, for example, of the SWP in a meeting in Rome in September 2002 convened by the PRC and largely composed of the main surviving European Communist parties would have been inconceivable five years ago. This process is also reflected in the discussions that have developed among different revolutionary tendenciesmost notably the FI and the IST, whose representatives met in Paris that same month. Once again, such a meeting would have been unimaginable a few years earlier.

It is important, however, to appreciate that the evolution of the formally organised radical left in Europe is only the tip of the iceberg. The process of radicalisation under way is much broader. Since the late 1990s a series of anti-capitalist networks have emerged in Europe - for example, ATTAC, the French campaign for the Tobin Tax, which has greatly broadened its focus and its geographical scope since its foundation in 1998; the Italian Social Forums movement that developed after the protests at the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001; Globalise Resistance in Britain and Ireland; the Genoa 2001 Campaign in Greece.4 These and many other activist coalitions are now involved in the European Social Forum that first met in Florence in November 2002; many have also been involved in the World Social Forum. They overlap with the mass mobilisations that have swept Europe over the past year: against anti-union legislation in Italy and Spain, against the Nazi Le Pen in France and, above all, against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition has become the focus of perhaps the biggest peace movement in postwar British history, one moreover with a radical anti-imperialist edge that connects it to the broader contestation of global capitalism.

Party and movement

The development of these movements defines the task of the radical left today. Can they relate effectively to these movements - make themselves part of the movements, work to build them and also fight politically to influence them? This is the decisive test that we must pass today. The electoral interventions that the different formations make, either at the national level or potentially on a Europe-wide scale, need to be judged by this criterion rather than seen as ends in themselves. For example, the brilliantly effective presidential campaign mounted by Olivier Besançenot and the LCR was successful both because Olivier articulated the anti-capitalist consciousness, particularly of larger sectors of French youth, and because it situated the Ligue as the key factor in building a political vehicle for this consciousness. Electoral campaigns are simply one means by which the radical left can shape the radicalisation, not (as they seem sometimes to be conceived) as the privileged form of political intervention.

By definition, the radical left are committed to building political parties - a controversial position that is rejected by many influenced by the reformist and autonomist currents within the anti-capitalist movement. In our view, a proper understanding of the Leninist tradition requires us to reject the choice that is often presented between party and movement as a false dilemma. Revolutionary socialists should be seeking to build both party and movement. Far from weakening the movement, an effective socialist party can make the movement stronger, more dynamic, and more coherent. The SWP, for example, has been a leading force in the Stop the War Coalition. This has not, however, made the appeal of the Coalition narrower. On the contrary, we have resisted attempts to narrow down the coalition by committing it, for example, to a formal critique of imperialism or a condemnation of radical Islam. By successfully arguing that the coalition should focus exclusively on opposition to Bush's war drive and the consequent racist attacks and threats to civil liberties, we have helped to keep it as inclusive as possible and therefore laid the basis for the mass movement that it has become.

This kind of appreciation of the relationship between party and movement flows from the broader revolutionary Marxist tradition. This tradition is, however, not a set of timeless texts, but rather a historical process through which successive generations of revolutionaries have developed Marxism through engaging with the concrete struggles of their day. To determine what kind of parties we should be building and with whom, it is not enough to read Lenin and Trotsky (essential though that is). We have carefully to examine the historical situation that has produced the present opening for the radical left. "Building the party" today in the aftermath of Seattle and Genoa and September 11 is not the same as it was in the 1970s or the 1980s, let alone in the era of the Second International or after the Russian Revolution or during the heyday of Stalinism. The kind of parties we should be building now depends crucially on the historical circumstances that presently confront us.

The revival and realignment of the left currently under way have two main causes and confront a major challenge.5 The causes are the collapse of Stalinism and the development of the anti-capitalist movement; the challenge is the new era of imperialist war. The fall of the Stalinist regimes in eastern and central Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union had initially a negative effect on the left internationally, since many still invested - if only perhaps unconsciously - hope in the existence of what appeared to be a systemic alternative to Western-style market capitalism. In the longer term, however, the end of (no longer) "existing socialism" has served to wipe the slate clean ideologically, and encouraged activists and intellectuals to confront capitalism without any sense of having to situate their politics with respect to the Stalinist monstrosity. This feeling of entering a new era has been greatly reinforced by the development of an international movement against global capitalism - a process punctuated by the great protests at Seattle, Genoa, and Barcelona, and by the meetings of the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre. A decade after the End of History was proclaimed, capitalism is once again being practically challenged and ideologically contested. The manifest weaknesses of the anti-capitalist movement - above all its ideological incoherence and ambiguous relationship with the organised working class - do not alter its immense significance in renewing the left internationally.6

The challenge that the movement faces is obvious. The post-Cold War era has proved to be a new epoch of imperialist wars, in which the United States confronts - not in the first instance its major economic or geopolitical rivals such as Germany, Japan, Russia, and China - but medium-rank capitalist dictatorships with the aim of maintaining and extending its global hegemony. The Bush administration's war drive, currently focused on Iraq, has taken this process to a new and dangerous phase.7 The anti-capitalist movement can accordingly develop only if it widens its focus and becomes an anti-war and anti-imperialist movement. Where it has taken on this task, as it has in Italy and Britain, the result has been a deepening and extension of the movement (indeed in Britain the anti-war mobilisations have arguably turned what was hitherto more a diffuse anti-capitalist mood into a real movement). When anti-capitalist networks have failed to make opposition to the Bush war drive central to their activity, as they have in France, the movement has stalled. I return to some implications of this divergence below.

Is reformism finished?

This analysis of the sources of the left's revival has recently been contested by Murray Smith, a leading intellectual in the International Socialist Movement (ISM), the dominant platform inside the SSP. Smith writes:

The starting point for any consideration of regroupment on the revolutionary left is the broader process of recomposition of the workers' movement.

The starting point is the qualitative change in the traditional workers' parties, which opens up possibilities for new workers' parties based on socialist, class-struggle politics, and which is itself a product of the evolution of capitalism since the 1970s. The conditions for regroupment and for new parties have been germinating for ten or 15 years. It's just a question of when different political forces understood it. Scottish Militant Labour started to understand it in the mid-1990s, which is why it took the initiative to form the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996 and the SSP in 1998. The SWP did not understand it at all then and does not fully understand it now.8

What is it precisely that the SWP fails fully to understand? The answer comes in a throw-away reference by Smith to "the bourgeoisification of social democracy" that he fails to elaborate. This would be a big change indeed, if the social-democratic parties had broken their moorings with the workers' movement and become openly capitalist formations. The problem here is less a failure of "understanding" on the SWP's part than a major political disagreement. But even if it were true that organisations such as the British Labour Party, its Australian counterpart, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the French Socialist Party (PS) had become "bourgeoisified", this development would not be sufficient to explain the international revival of the left in the sense in which I have been describing it. To begin to fill the space vacated by social democracy requires more than raising a new political banner - or even standing parliamentary candidates. It depends also on the development of new struggles and movements that begin to give growing layers of workers and young people a concrete sense of their capacity to resist and fight for an alternative. Thus the starting point for the development of the "left of left" in France was the public sector strikes in November-December 1995.9 Seattle, Genoa, and Argentina have played this role on a broader international front.

There is, however, an important sense in which Smith is right. It is undoubtedly true that the decline of the traditional workers' parties has opened up space to their left that the radical left is beginning to fill. But this is a process that has been unfolding on a much longer time-span than the ten or fifteen years to which Smith refers. It is a product of two events - 1956 and 1968 - and a longer-term process, the decline of classical reformism. 1956 - the international crisis precipitated by Krushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin and by the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution - represented the first crack in the dominance of the workers' movement hitherto jointly exercised by the social-democratic and Communist parties. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, who remained a loyal member of the Communist Party of Great Britain till its collapse in the early 1990s, recently called 1956 a "traumatic year" and a "great earthquake" in the history of the Communist movement.10 The CPs' loss of both legitimacy and activists permitted the emergence of the first formations and publications of a New Left that sought to develop an alternative to both Stalinism and social democracy.11

1968 - and more generally the upturn in the class struggle and political radicalisation that swept the advanced capitalist countries between the late 1960s and early 1970s - created a much larger audience among workers and youth for the organisations of the far left that sought, with varying degrees of success and under diverse ideological influences, to build some version of a Leninist revolutionary party. It was the decline of these movements in the late 1970s that was at the origins of the crisis of the left - a crisis greatly reinforced by the capitalist offensive inaugurated under Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s and generalised under the banner of neo-liberalism in the 1990s - from which we are now beginning to emerge. Nevertheless, certain organisations that came out of the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, notably the LCR and the SWP in Europe, remain significant forces in the radical left. The intellectual traditions and the historical experience that they embody can make an important contribution to the further development of this left.12

Running through the ups and downs of the class struggle over the past generation has been the decline of classical reformism, though this has not been a continuous trend, but rather a complex process involving a variety of interacting forces. Two in particular stand out. First, the mass reformist parties, whether social-democratic or Communist (one of the features of the post-1956 period has been the more or less complete transformation of the Stalinist parties into conventional reformist formations), have suffered a significant decline in their working-class base. The dense, all-embracing workers' parties of the first half of the twentieth century - the SPD, widely perceived as "a state within a state" in both prewar Germany and the Weimar Republic during the 1920s - can no longer rely on the continuous involvement and the political allegiance of large layers of working-class activists.13 This process is uneven - more pronounced in Britain and France (where the PS never had the organic involvement of significant numbers of manual workers) than in Germany, generally slower in the CPs but it is undeniably a generalised phenomenon.

The erosion of the reformist parties at the base has had various causes, many of which reflect larger social processes. On the one hand, the bureaucratisation of parliamentary and municipal politics has distanced them increasingly from everyday working-class life; at the same time, modern electoral machines are much less reliant on the routine activity and occasional mobilisation of local activists than they were in the past, as hugely expensive media campaigns become the focus of the electoral contest. On the other hand, the development of rank-and-file trade unionism, community activism, and other forms of grassroots activity have created the means of posing and winning demands that do not depend primarily on electing or pressuring municipal or parliamentary representatives. This kind of "do-it-yourself" reformism has helped to disconnect working-class people from "their" parties.

This disconnection has been reinforced by the second major factor in the decline of reformism, namely the diminished scope for reforms. The past thirty years of capitalist crisis and neo-liberal restructuring have unleashed wave upon wave of attacks on reforms won during the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s, or even earlier. Caught between pressures from above and below, from the bosses and from their working-class base, social-democratic parties in office have knuckled down to capital and abandoned their increasingly modest reform programs in the name of fiscal austerity and economic competitiveness. Such was the fate of the British Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s, and of the prolonged, and increasingly cynical and corrupt, Mitterrand presidency in France between 1981 and 1994.

The more recent cohort of social-democratic governments in Europe, swept into office in the late 1990s on a wave of rebellion against the experience of Thatcherism in Britain and of its generalisation via European monetary union on the Continent, represent a further stage in this process, in which the term "reform" has been completely emptied of meaning and used to refer to yet more neo-liberal measures. The damage that this can inflict on the social democrats themselves is indicated by the French presidential and legislative elections in April-June 2002, in which the traditional vote of the PS and its Communist ally haemorrhaged leftwards to the Trotskyist candidates and rightwards to the fascist Le Pen, allowing the scandal-ridden Gaullist Chirac to sneak back into the presidency with the bonus of a large parliamentary majority. Social democracy is undeniably in decline. This is not, however, the same as its "bourgeoisification". Lenin characterised the Labour Party and its like as capitalist workers' parties. They are, in other words, parties that express workers' resistance to capitalism and seek to contain that resistance within the framework of the system. This contradictory function depends upon the role of the trade-union bureaucracy, which acts as the connection between the parliamentary leadership of the social-democratic party and the organised working class. The bureaucracy itself occupies an ambiguous position, operating as a distinct social layer whose interests depend on their ability to strike compromises between labour and capital, and therefore to prevent workers' struggles from developing into a challenge to the system. Simply put, social democracy is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. This relationship both provides a buffer, insulating the parliamentary leadership from rank-and-file pressures, and sets limits to its freedom to manoeuvre in the bourgeois political arena.14

Given the Marxist analysis of reformism and the trade union bureaucracy, to assert that social democracy has been "bourgeoisified" is to claim that it has broken loose from the anchorage in the organised working class provided by its link with the trade union bureaucracy. Undoubtedly this is the outcome devoutly sought by the right wing of the contemporary social-democratic leaderships, represented above all by Tony Blair and the other ideologues of the Third Way, whose model is provided by Bill Clinton's "New Democrat". Yet even Blair has failed to achieve this goal. Labour's campaign in the 1997 and 2001 elections depended critically on trade union finance and personnel; currently a cash-strapped party leadership is trying to persuade the unions affiliated to increase their financial support for Labour. Nor is this a one-way process. Blair's desperate efforts to persuade George Bush to go to the United Nations for a fig-leaf of legitimacy for war against Iraq reflected the depth of opposition to war in the working-class movement that was, above all, expressed by the forty per cent of the votes cast at the Labour Party conference in October 2002, mainly by trade union affiliates, in support of what amounted to an anti-imperialist amendment.

The workers' movement elsewhere in Europe never suffered defeats as severe as those inflicted in Britain under Thatcher. Facing generally less cowed trade unions, the continental social democrats, for all their failures in office, have manoeuvred in order to contain their base. Lionel Jospin in France carefully cultivated a socialist rhetoric dramatically at variance with his neo-liberal policies: arguably, it was his decision to abandon this hypocrisy and move more openly onto the centre ground of bourgeois politics that doomed him to humiliation in the first round of the presidential elections last April. More striking still, the ultra-opportunist Gerhard Schröder, confronted with the most robust workers' movement and most persistently proletarian reformist party in Europe, has tacked and turned, signing up to a classic Third Way document with Blair but rescuing bankrupt firms, opening up German companies to Anglo-Saxon style speculative finance but going slow on the labour market "flexibility" demanded by the bosses, eagerly participating in the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 but narrowly winning re-election in 2002 on the basis of opposition to war in Iraq.

The connections between social democracy and the organised working class have become significantly looser over the past generation, but they have not been broken. The loosening is important: on the one hand, it increases the room for manoeuvre of leadership teams intimately involved with the media and big business; and, on the other hand, it widens the space for the development of alternatives to the left of social democracy. But the remaining links are also important: any alternative project based on the belief that reformism is finished will go dangerously adrift.

One reason why this belief is dangerous is that reformism is a wider phenomenon than organised social democratic parties. Reformism - in the sense of a political movement that seeks the gradual improvement of capitalism rather than the revolutionary transformation of society - stems from the material conditions of working-class life under capitalism, and in particular the way in which these conditions (in particular the fragmentation and passivity induced by the capitalist economy) lead workers, even when they are engaged in struggle, to doubt their ability to take control of society. This lack of self-confidence can be broken down only through protracted class battles and the active intervention of organised revolutionaries. The defeat of reformism is not something that happens automatically.

Moreover, reformist consciousness can exist even where a social-democratic party does not exist. This has long been true in the United States, where a kind of bastard social democracy within the unions has helped to bind many workers to what is indisputably a straightforwardly capitalist party, the Democrats. Versions of reformism can develop even within militant mass movements. This is very evident within the anti-capitalist movement in Europe, where ATTAC in France has emerged as an increasingly well-defined right wing, seeking to remedy the ills wrought by neo-liberalism by strengthening the nation-state and reforming the European Union and resisting efforts to mobilise the movement against the Bush war drive. This should surprise no-one who remembers their Lenin: if the working class does not spontaneously gravitate to revolutionary consciousness, why should looser and more amorphous social movements?

Modalities of regroupment

The persistence of reformism in both organised and unorganised forms has two important political implications. First, it means that a major strategic task of the radical left is to win over the working-class base of the social-democratic parties. The key tool forged by the Communist International in its early years to achieve this objective - the united front tactic - retains its historical significance, even if united fronts today often take new forms. The experience of common practice in struggle around demands and through organisational forms that can be shared by diverse political forces is essential if those currently influenced by social democracy are to be won to a revolutionary program.15 Secondly, the classic distinction between reform and revolution - drawn by Luxemburg and Lenin in the era of the Second and Third Internationals - also remains of critical importance. If historical processes are not automatically wiping social democracy out, then it will require political intervention and argument to weaken the influence of reformism in both the organised working class and the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. A party that aspires to offer workers a way out of the impasse of social democracy can do so only if its program and practice are based on a revolutionary critique of reformism.

These considerations help to provide a framework for approaching the question of regroupment. There are three conceptions current on the left internationally. The first is championed by Rifondazione in Italy, and reflects the PRC's politically ambiguous evolution. The PRC leadership seems to be trying to bring together the main surviving Communist parties in Europe, the leading organisations of the revolutionary left, and the non-party elements within the anti-capitalist movement. There are two difficulties with this approach. In the first place, the PRC is exceptional among the European CPs in having moved sharply to the left in recent years. The plight of the French Communist Party (PCF) dramatises an alternative trajectory. It participated in Jospin's "plural left" coalition; its ministers served in a government that implemented neo-liberal domestic policies and helped to wage war on Yugoslavia in 1999 and on Afghanistan in 2001. Consigned to opposition because of the drastic electoral punishment that it suffered (even more severe than the other constituent formations of the "plural left") in the polls in 2002, the PCF is now seeking to rebuild its left credibility by campaigning against war on Iraq. All the same, this unappetising history indicates that, even if we cast our nets widely when defining the "radical left", the survivors of historical Stalinism are, on the whole, not useful partners.

The PRC is therefore a special case among the European CPs. Its decisive move leftwards since it brought down the first centre-left Olive Tree coalition in 1998 was an extremely welcome development. All the same, there are problematic elements in its approach to party-building. Reflecting the dramatic decline in Marxist culture in Italy since the implosion of the revolutionary left in the late 1970s, the PRC is extremely eclectic theoretically, and has, in particular, uncritically absorbed large chunks of the autonomist Marxism redeployed for the present era by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in their celebrated book Empire. There is something paradoxical about a mass workers' party taking on board a leftist ideology that is systematically hostile both to organised labour and to party-building.16

Moreover, the PRC has retained from its past a conception of the party that equates it with the movement - a conception, common to both Stalinism and social democracy, that is radically at odds with Lenin's approach, which sharply distinguishes between party and class, conceiving the party as the self-conscious section of the working class that organises to win over the majority.17 In consequence the PRC tends not to confront the political heterogeneity of the anti-capitalist movement, and therefore fails to recognise the significance of building united fronts among diverse currents and fighting ideologically within the movement for a revolutionary Marxist approach.

The second approach to regroupment is that championed by the ISM and its allies internationally. This offers the SSP as a model for party-building today. As defended in particular by Murray Smith, this is a broad or "strategically non-delimited" party in the sense of leaving open the question of reform and revolution. The justification for this approach is supposed to be the disappearance of reformism - the idea of "the bourgeoisification of social democracy" that I criticised above.18 Smith makes much of the idea that in criticising this model the SWP is accusing the SSP of centrism, a cardinal insult in the dictionary of revolutionary polemic:

We should define a party concretely, by the role it plays in relation to the fundamental classes in society and to the state. A centrist party is a party that oscillates between reformism and revolutionary politics. Is this what the SSP does? The reality is that the SSP is playing a role of conducting propaganda and agitation in the working class, taking up all the issues that confront the working class on a national and international level and presenting a socialist alternative. No doubt the party still has weaknesses, but there is no sign of oscillation or subordination to any other political force.19

In fact, the SWP does not regard the SSP as a centrist party. Its supporters participate loyally in the SSP as members of the Socialist Worker Platform. The SSP has undoubtedly not vacillated when confronted by major tests - above all, that posed by the Bush war drive. This reflects the fact that it is a party led by serious revolutionaries. But to accord the SSP leadership the credit they deserve is not the same as accepting that they have somehow discovered the philosopher's stone of party building. Already the SSP's short history has highlighted some difficulties with the "strategically undelimited" model. Two in particular stand out.

First, the belief that reformism is dead leads to the opposite of opportunism, in the form of a sectarian attitude towards the Labour Party. This is entirely logical given the ISM's premises: if Labour is just another capitalist party, then why treat it any differently from the other leading bourgeois parties - the Tories, Scottish Nationalists, and Liberal Democrats? But Labour is different in that, particularly thanks to its left and the trade union leaders, it still commands the loyalty of the mass of organised workers. The failure to understand this leads to missed opportunities to build united fronts capable of breaking into Labour's core support. The SSP has mounted a number of particularly foolish attacks on George Galloway, a Scottish Labour MP who has been one of the toughest leaders of the anti-imperialist wing of the anti-war movement in Britain. The trouble with a triumphalist conception of the SSP is that it can cause its unnecessary isolation within the organised working class in Scotland.20

Secondly, an underestimation of reformism can paradoxically lead to the attempt to fill the entire space that it has supposedly left. The SSP leadership appear to believe that the death of social democracy means that pressing bread-and-butter economic demands automatically has a radicalising dynamic. This can lead to a sort of parochial economism manifested, for example, by a tendency of some members of the leadership to counterpose pursuing electoral agitation around the economic demands the party has prioritised (free school meals, for example) to building the anti-war movement. Of course economic demands matter, but in the present climate in Europe it would be a terrible mistake to try artificially to separate them from the broader political radicalisation. In Britain, for example, a genuine "class-struggle left wing" has emerged in the trade union bureaucracy that is prepared both to oppose war on Iraq on a principled basis and to challenge Blair's neo-liberal economic agenda (even though some of them, for example, Andy Gilchrist of the firefighters' union, still remain strongly committed to Labour). It would be sad if revolutionaries lagged behind left reformists by trying to keep economics and politics separate.

None of this means that it may not in some circumstances be appropriate to build a "strategically non-delimited" party that avoids taking a position on reform and revolution. For example, if a significant section of the left trade union bureaucracy, with substantial rank-and-file support, broke with Labour and sought to launch a new party, perhaps on a relatively explicit reformist program, any revolutionary organisation worth its salt would have very seriously to consider being in on this party from the start. But considering this kind of scenario underlines that SSP-type parties cannot be treated as a general model, but merely as one possible vehicle for the longer term process of building a mass revolutionary party. Again, in the actual situation that prevails in England and Wales, it is certainly correct to build the Socialist Alliance - which has some of the characteristics of a party and some of those of a united front - on a program that is socialist but that falls well short of revolution: artificially to declare the Alliance a revolutionary party would shut it off from the substantial sections on the left of the working-class movement who are only just beginning to break with Labourism.21 Nevertheless, in such broad coalitions it is essential for revolutionaries to retain independent organisation in order to combine building the coalition with the objective that gives this work its meaningthe construction of a mass revolutionary party.22

The third conception of regroupment - that of revolutionary regroupment - is that defended by the SWP. Its aim is to bring together all those who identify with the revolutionary Marxist tradition as it was developed and defended by Marx and Engels, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and who want to build the movement today on a non-sectarian basis. To clarify what is involved in this conception of regroupment, let us consider its component elements.

In the first place, it is important to make clear that no regroupment that is meaningful can take place if one current insists that its interpretation of the tradition must be the basis of the regroupment. This does not mean that the SWP, for example, ceases to defend key aspects of its theoretical heritage - for example, the interpretation of Stalinism as bureaucratic state capitalism developed by Tony Cliff. But there are other interpretations of revolutionary Marxism that cannot simply be dismissed because they diverge from our own with respect, say, to the question of Stalinism. For example, Daniel Bensaïd's Marx L'Intempestif - recently translated into English as Marx for Our Times - defends a conception of Marxism that is radically non-determinist, conceiving history as the interference of different times in which revolution is not an inevitable outcome but rather an interruption of bourgeois normality, a drastic intervention in a world that capitalism is driving to catastrophe. As Bensaïd notes, this is one contestable reading of the revolutionary Marxist tradition that - one might add - in no way implies the analysis of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state that was long the official position of the Fourth International, of which Bensaïd is a leading figure.

There is, in other words, more than one way to carry on the revolutionary Marxist tradition. But, Bensaïd also notes, Marxism is "the theory of a practice that is open to several readings. Not any readings whatsoever: not everything is permissible in the name of free interpretation; not everything is valid."23 Revolutionary Marxism has developed in response to a series of great crises in the workers' movement - in particular the collapse of the three internationals that posed a series of choices: between Marx and Bakunin, Lenin and Kautsky, Trotsky and Stalin. No version of revolutionary Marxism today is likely to be of any use that does not internalise in some form Trotsky's critique of Stalinism - not merely the social interpretation of the Stalin regime that treats it as a material phenomenon and not just an ideological deviation, but also the theory of permanent revolution and the critique of popular frontism, essential tools that, if taken up, could have helped avoid a series of disastrous defeats where instead the movement pursued the chimera of a "national-democratic revolution": China 1925-27, Spain 1936-39, Iraq 1958-62, Indonesia 1965-66, Iran 1978-79. Any analysis of the triumph of neo-liberalism in post-apartheid South Africa - not, of course, a world-historic defeat, but a tremendously wasted opportunity after the great workers' and community struggles of the 1980s - would discover that its roots also lie in the efforts by the leadership of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to separate the struggle for national liberation from that for socialism.24

The theory of permanent revolution is, of course, not the property of any particular current, even if there are different readings of it. Essential for a lasting regroupment is not simply a shared commitment to the revolutionary tradition of which this theory is part, but a non-sectarian approach to building the anti-capitalist movement. It is important to bear in mind that there are influential sectarian versions of Trotskyism that despite their other divergences share a propensity to start with their differences with the rest of the movement (and indeed with each other). This is to be found among groups stemming from the orthodox Trotskyist tradition - for example, the bulk of the far left in Argentina - and also, alas, among at least one from the IS tradition - the International Socialist Organization in the United States.25

One point in common between the IST and the FI has been their commitment to building the movement against global capitalism, even though there are significant differences between them about the precise balance between united-front work and party-building within the broader movement. The FI comrades are, on the whole, noticeably more cautious than we are about pursuing political arguments within the movement - perhaps most importantly over what we regard as the centrality of opposition to the US war drive to the future of the struggle against capitalist globalisation. Implicit in this disagreement, in our view, is a misunderstanding of the nature of united fronts.

In our view, there is no contradiction between building on the broadest and most inclusive possible basis and engaging in comradely argument with the other forces in the movement. The first is, on the contrary, the precondition of the second. The test of a non-sectarian approach is that revolutionaries start, not from what differentiates them from others, but from what unites them, and offer a dynamic strategy for building the movement. Debates within the movement are likely to be most fruitful when they arise from the concrete questions of how to develop the struggle rather than being picked out of the air by sectarian wiseacres. But it is self-defeating to avoid argument at all costs. The development of any serious mass movement inevitably involves a process of differentiation between more and less radical forces. We are seeing this today with the crystallisation of a reformist wing within the anti-capitalist movement around the leadership of ATTAC France. Revolutionaries have to know how to work with forces to their right without capitulating to them.

The future of left regroupment depends heavily on how well revolutionaries address this tricky task. If, at the same time, they learn how to work together more effectively, the rewards will be considerable. Thus increasing cooperation between the LCR and the SWP, as the leading European organisations in international currents with significant influence on other continents (for example, in Brazil in the case of the FI, and in South Korea and parts of sub-Saharan Africa in that of the IST), could begin to constitute a powerful revolutionary pole of gravity inside the movement against global capitalism. If this does take place, it will be through a gradual process, involving both frank political discussion and the accumulation of experiences of practical cooperation that can build mutual confidence and a framework of shared political understanding. It is worth taking care and time to get the process right. Revolutionary Marxists have a real chance increasingly to shape the new wave of struggles that is developing. It would be a tragedy were weeither through hesitating too long or by impatiently trying to force events - to throw this opportunity away.


1. R. Lapper, "Latin America Turns Left", Financial Times, July 29, 2002.

2. R. Lapper, "US Right Scents a New `Axis of Evil' in Latin America", ibid., October 23, 2002.

3. Alas, Lutte Ouvrière, the other leading far left organisation in Europe, remains stuck in an increasingly self-destructive sectarian groove.

4. Describing this movement as "anti-capitalist" is controversial, for reasons that sometimes reflect the genuine ambiguity of the movement, which was well brought out by Pierre Rousset of the LCR, when he said at the Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference (Easter 2002) that the movement is anti-capitalist in the sense of rejecting the system, but not in the sense of having a coherent revolutionary perspective for an alternative. The label "anti-capitalist movement" has the double advantage of stressing its anti-systemic character and avoiding silly arguments over whether we are for or against globalisation, but it should not be taken to mean that it is a movement composed of revolutionary Marxists, as will become eminently clear below.

5. The argument briefly set out here is much further developed in A. Callinicos, "Regroupment, Realignment, and the Revolutionary Left", IST International Discussion Bulletin, 1, July 2002. This bulletin contains a variety of materials on far left regroupment. It is available at <>; many other SWP texts cited here are available either at this site or at <>.

6. For much more analysis of the anti-capitalist movement, see A. Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (forthcoming, Cambridge, 2003).

7. See J. Rees, "Imperialism: Globalization, the State and War", International Socialism, (2) 93 (2001) and A. Callinicos, "The Grand Strategy of the American Empire", ibid., (II) 97 (forthcoming, 2003).

8. M. Smith, "Where is the SWP Going?", Frontline, 8 (2002), online edition, <>. Scottish Militant Labour was the name adopted by the Scottish supporters of the Militant Tendency after they broke with the Labour Party in the early 1990s (south of the border, Militant became the Socialist Party of England and Wales). It subsequently split between the ISM and the Scottish supporters of the SP-dominated international current, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), who form a separate platform within the SSP.

9. J. Wolfreys, "Class Struggles in France", International Socialism, (2) 84 (1999).

10. E.J. Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, London, 2002, pp. 205 and 210.

11. For accounts of the development of the New Left in Britain and the US after 1956, see respectively D. Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-68, Harmondsworth, 1976, and M. Isserman, If I Had a Hammer …, New York, 1987.

12. See, on the upturn of 1967-76, C. Harman, The Fire Last Time, London, 1988. Daniel Bensaïd of the LCR has written an important critical assessment of the experience of building the FI, particularly in France, in Les Trotskysmes, Paris, 2002.

13. For an early study of this process in Britain, see B. Hindess, The Decline of Working-Class Politics, London, 1971.

14. See T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, London, 1986, Part 1, and The Labour Party: A Marxist History, London, 1988.

15. A. Callinicos, "Unity in Diversity", Socialist Review, April 2002.

16. See the critique of autonomist Marxism in A. Callinicos, "Toni Negri in Perspective", International Socialism, (2) 92 (2001), and An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, pp. 80-3, 93-102, and A. Nimtz, "Class Struggle under `Empire': In Defence of Marx and Engels", International Socialism, (2) 96 (2002).

17. See C. Harman, 1968, "Party and Class", reprinted in T. Cliff et al., Party and Class, London, 1997.

18. See, in addition to the text by Smith cited above, his "The LCR and the Question of a Workers' Party", IST International Discussion Bulletin, 1, July 2002.

19. Smith, "Where is the SWP Going?"

20. See Mike Gonzalez's reply to Smith, "The Socialist Worker Platform and the SSP", due to appear in Frontline.

21. The SWP's approach to the Socialist Alliance is most fully set out by John Rees in "Anti-Capitalism, Reformism, and Socialism", International Socialism, (2) 90 (2001).

22. It should be clear from the foregoing how mistaken Smith and other leaders of the ISM are to compare the SWP's stance with that of the CWI leadership, who, as Smith puts it, "panicked at the consequences of opening up the organisation in this way and retreated to the bunker" ("Where is the SWP Going?"). The English SP, the core of the CWI, having opposed the formation of the SSP, walked out of the Socialist Alliance in December 2001 after it lost a conference vote. The SWP has, by contrast, demonstrated its commitment to the Socialist Alliance as part of its pursuit of a broader process of revolutionary regroupment whose aim is to break wider layers of the working class from reformism. It is a form of ultimatism to dismiss all those who reject the SSP model as open or concealed sectarians.

23. D. Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times, London, 2002, p. 2.

24. See, for a recent discussion of these issues, J. Rees, "The Democratic Revolution and the Socialist Revolution", International Socialism, (2) 83 (1999).

25. A. Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (London, 2001).