Towards an international alliance of socialist parties

by Murray Smith

The policy of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), reaffirmed at its annual conference in February 2001, is to work towards an international alliance of socialist parties. This objective is based on the reality of the emergence of new parties in a number of countries. It would be premature to try to launch a formal alliance today. The process is uneven, more advanced in some countries than in others. But it has already been possible to establish links with the emerging new socialist forces in different countries.

This article will attempt to look at the situation of the workers’ movement and the left, specifically in western Europe, and to map out the conditions of the emergence of new socialist parties.

The overall context is one in which the working class of western Europe has been subjected for more than twenty years to a sustained capitalist offensive aiming to roll back all the gains which were built up in the postwar period. This offensive involves attacks on public services, the health service and education, the privatisation of nationalised industries, attacks on welfare rights and job security, the introduction of flexible working, deregulation and so on.

This offensive began in the late 1970s. It was the reaction of the capitalists to the end of the postwar boom and the long depressive wave which began with the recession of 1974-75. The process known as globalisation also corresponds to this period. Its function is above all to liberate capital and commodities from the limits imposed on them in the postwar period and enable them to flow freely around the world, concentrating capital, exploiting workers and the poor.

In this period capitalism has a more and more parasitic character. Profits extracted from the exploitation of labour are increasingly invested not in production but in financial operations of various sorts. Parallel to the capitalist offensive and reinforcing it, substantial changes have taken place in the composition of the working class, involving the weakening or disappearance of traditional sectors which were often the best organised, most militant and most politically conscious.

The material offensive against the working class has been accompanied by an ideological offensive promoting the supposed superiority of the market economy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this has been reinforced by a whole discourse on the failure of socialism, leading to the conclusion that capitalism is the only game in town, that it can be tinkered with but not seriously reformed and certainly not challenged because there is no alternative, that you must not infringe the sacrosanct “laws of the market”. The discourse on the market is of course bunkum and can easily be exposed as such. Historically, the state has frequently intervened in the economy to defend its own national capitalists and to regulate relations between employers and workers. Today the state intervenes to promote globalisation and neo-liberal policies. However, the offensive centring on the “failure of socialism” has to be taken more seriously. The balance sheet not only of Stalinism but also of social democracy and of a whole series of radical nationalist regimes which claimed to be socialist makes it urgent and indispensable to redefine a credible perspective of democratic socialism for the twenty-first century.

This context of a sustained capitalist offensive needs to be borne in mind because it has had a profound effect on working-class organisation and consciousness, and this is the framework within which the present recomposition of the workers’ movement is taking place.

It is important to underline that the offensive against the working class has been carried forward from the beginning by governments not only of the right but also of the left. In Britain the offensive is associated with Margaret Thatcher, who inflicted substantial defeats on the working class and blazed a trail that other bourgeois governments in Europe have tried, generally with less success, to follow.

Not only have the traditional parties of the left not defended the working class, they have consistently applied the policies demanded of them by capital. As Samuel Brittan put it in the Financial Times (September 2, 1999):

… the counter-revolutionary ideas were partially put into effect by the Reagan and Thatcher governments—which for some people was enough to condemn them. In fact the UK and US counter-revolutions started in the closing years of the Callaghan and Carter administrations—Callaghan’s famous 1976 denial that governments could spend their way into full employment was a landmark. The counter-revolution has indeed been carried forward by the present Labour government …

This is entirely logical. For several decades after 1945, social democracy’s role was to defend a capitalist order in which the working class had made gains compared to the previous period. Social democracy was associated with the defence of the so-called postwar consensus, established in a situation after 1945 in which the relationship of forces was favourable to the working class and the capitalists actually feared revolution in several countries of Europe. This consensus involved the development of the welfare state, increased rights for workers, access to higher education for working-class children and a considerable extension of the public sector. The capitalists could live with this during the postwar boom, which also brought relatively high wages, low unemployment and strong trade union organisation.

But since the 1970s the message of capital has been loud and clear: the season for concessions is over; we can’t afford it; in fact we need to take back what we had to concede before. In this situation the reformists had a choice: either stand up and mobilise workers to defend past gains or do the bidding of their capitalist masters. Unanimously, they chose the latter. Any illusions that might have existed about these parties having some kind of dual nature, being somewhere between labour and capital, were dissipated. In the final analysis, the reformists have always defended capitalism, in good times and in bad. There were hardly even any bleeps, apart from the parenthesis of 1981-83, when France’s Socialist government tried half-heartedly to pursue a slightly more left policy before being whipped into line by the pressure of the market. European social democracy has been as faithful as the right in applying capitalist policies, and sometimes more so. Gonzalez in Spain, Mitterrand and now Jospin in France, Schröder in Germany, Blair in Britain and even the ex-Communist D’Alema in Italy have all pursued policies substantially the same as those of governments of the right. These parties have proven not only to be of no use to defend the working class but to be actually instruments to attack it. Nor have there been any significant splits to the left. Most serious opposition within these parties was defeated in the 1980s. Former representatives of the left have been bought or have simply capitulated to the dominant ideological climate, or else they have been driven out or marginalised.

So in the first place these parties have become bourgeoisified, and in the second place nowhere has any sizeable split occurred in reaction against this process. That is what brings us to the conclusion that these parties are finished as any kind of potential instruments for the defence of the working class. It would also be an illusion to think that under pressure these parties could conduct another policy, one that would be in the interests of workers and the poor. They will bend and retreat under the pressure of working-class resistance like any bourgeois government, as we have seen on occasions over the last period in Germany and even more so in France. But when the pressure subsides, they will return to the attack, because that is their function.

Of course, many workers still vote for the traditional parties of the left, seeing them as a lesser evil than the right. But in every country the level of working-class abstention has steadily risen over recent years. These workers are expressing a negative rejection of parties which have betrayed them. Where they have been given the opportunity to vote for a positive socialist alternative, for example the SSP in Scotland, the LO-LCR list in the 1999 European elections in France, or the Left Bloc in Portugal, they have done so in significant numbers. It is also true that some activists who see no alternative continue to be members of Socialist and Communist parties. But they also can be won over if a credible alternative exists.

The Communist parties of Europe were already in decline before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This decline has now become terminal. The smaller parties have either disappeared or become marginal, often with less influence today than Trotskyist or ex-Maoist groups.1 The larger parties managed to maintain themselves in a weakened state, as in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece. Only in Italy did the speed of the rightward evolution of the CP, which in fact emerged as a new bourgeois party of the left, playing the role assumed by the Socialist parties elsewhere, produce a straight left-right vertical split leading to a new mass workers’ party, the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC). In Spain the CP was the backbone of the United Left, a coalition which appeared as some kind of a left alternative to the Socialist Party in the 1980s and 1990s. In Germany a peculiar situation arose with the transformation of the former East German ruling party into the PDS, which has a mass base in the east and has made some modest inroads in the west, drawing in some other forces.

There is not a lot of room for manoeuvre for the former Communist parties. In spite of their increasing autonomy in the 1960s and 1970s, much of their identity derived from their links with the Soviet Union. Cut off from the source, they have few choices left. They can become a junior partner to the dominant socialist parties, they can camp in a sterile opposition, or they can be part of the process of formation of new working-class parties. Only in Italy has the PRC evolved in this way, not without some difficulty.

The French CP is providing a textbook example of what happens when a CP goes into an alliance in government with a Socialist Party, vaguely hoping to exert a leftward influence. It influences nothing at all and only provides a rather threadbare left cover for the government in the eyes of the diminishing layer of the working class that still looks towards it. Today the opinion polls for the next presidential election in France place CP leader Robert Hue behind Arlette Laguiller of the Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvrière. In Spain, the United Left is in crisis after zigzagging from voting with the right against the Socialist Party to forming an unprincipled bloc with the same Socialists at the last elections, culminating in electoral disaster. Hopefully, something positive will emerge from the left currents within it, but it is far from certain that the coalition will continue in its present form. In Germany, the leadership of the PDS clearly wants to turn the party into a junior partner of the SPD, although this has met with some resistance in the party.

Leaving aside the PRC, whose political evolution is not guaranteed but which has moved to the left and into opposition to the centre-left government, and with a possible question mark over the PDS, the remaining Communist parties are not going to be the motor forces for new parties. This is no accident. Although these parties contained many militants and cadres sincerely committed to a socialist transformation of society, they had long ceased to be the revolutionary parties they claimed to be. Decades of class collaboration are not a good preparation for independent class politics.

Faced with the bourgeoisification of the traditional workers’ parties, it is necessary to build new parties of the working class. What should be the basis of these parties? At different times in its history, the working class has needed different kinds of parties. In 1864 the First International sought to regroup all existing working-class organisations, not all of them even socialist. Twenty-five years later, the Second International represented a step forward, both quantitatively in that it contained mass parties and qualitatively in that these parties were generally committed to socialism as their goal and were in most cases strongly influenced by Marxism. After the first world war, a division took place between those who believed in achieving socialism through winning a parliamentary majority within the framework of the bourgeois state and carrying out reforms and those who believed socialism could come about only by a revolution, by creating a workers’ state as in Russia. These options were defended by parties that organised and influenced millions of workers. Even at a much later period, in the early 1970s, debates were taking place within the workers’ movement over what strategy could bring about socialist transformation. These debates took place against the background of such momentous events as May 1968 in France, the experience of Popular Unity in Chile and the Portuguese Revolution. Even a party like the French Socialist Party called in the 1970s for a break with capitalism.

What is the situation today? The division is not between socialists who are for reform and socialists who are for revolution. The division is between “socialists” who have no other ambition than to run capitalism, and socialists who argue that there is an alternative to capitalism. That is where the battle lines are drawn. The so-called reformists don’t reform; they carry out counter-reforms. Therefore, even serious reformists can be convinced of the necessity of a radical socialist transformation of society. As a document of the Swedish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) put it in 1996:

A new workers’ party will not mean the reestablishment of Social Democracy. Even if reformist ideas, probably expressed in the form of “real social democracy” predominate in the first stages, this will be on an entirely different basis from the past. The only way to defend even the old reforms is through militant struggle and the socialist transformation of society.

In an immediate sense, the choice is no longer between a reformist perspective and revolutionary transformation, but between a serious struggle for reforms with a perspective of revolutionary transformation and no revolution with precious little reform. Marxists today must not only be advocates of a socialist transformation of society, they must also be the best fighters for radical reforms.

That does not mean that in the last analysis the debate between reform and revolution is irrelevant. In the last analysis, it is as illusory today as yesterday to think that we can achieve socialism simply by winning a majority and using the existing state machine, without dismantling the structures carefully put in place to defend the capitalist order, without neutralising the inevitable sabotage and opposition of the capitalists, without creating a new type of state. But to try to build a mass party on those lines today is a bridge too far. Today, after a period when the working class has been pushed back, we have to rally forces and regroup, defending the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism and starting to move towards that objective by supporting working-class struggles and proposing measures which concretely improve the situation of the working class.

What is decisive is the centre of gravity of socialist parties. No-one would dispute that it is important for socialists to take part in the day-to-day struggles of working people, and also to represent them in parliament and in local councils. The question is, which predominates? We have to have the conception that socialists in parliament should act as the expression of the struggle outside, and not the traditional reformist attitude that the struggle outside is just a form of pressure on parliament.

The key question is how to move from the present situation towards the formation of new socialist parties. We have to start with the material to hand. There remain many members or ex-members of the Socialist parties who are still loyal to their socialist convictions. The same is even truer for the Communist parties.

What happens in the unions is also crucial. Generally speaking, the rightward evolution of the reformist parties has been more than accompanied by the trade union leaders. But the unions remain instruments, even though imperfect ones, of defence of the working class. Many trade union militants understand that there has to be a political dimension to their struggle. In the past they naturally supported or joined the Socialist or Communist parties. Today this is less and less the case. In France a whole generation of militants has been orphaned by the shift to the right not only of the Communist Party but of the CGT, the militant trade union confederation that was and still is to a large extent associated with it. There are also new independent unions that have no party to represent them. In Britain for the first time ever, there is serious questioning of the links with the Labour Party. The relationship between unions and political parties varies from country to country, but in every case militant trade unionists will be a key component of a new party.

In some cases people will come to socialist ideas from a nationalist background, from the realisation that the only real independence will be socialist independence, not only in Scotland but also in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Corsica and elsewhere. There is also the green factor, militant ecologists who come to the understanding that you have to be red to be green, often in reaction against the rightward evolution of the official Green parties, which in France and Germany form part of governing coalitions carrying out neo-liberal policies.

Last but not least there is the revolutionary Left, which represents sizeable formations in most European countries, Trotskyists of various shades and ex-Maoists. To the extent that these organisations, whatever their defects, continue to defend the need for socialist transformation and because they represent organised militant forces, they have a potentially crucial role to play. But they can play it only to the extent that they are able to grasp the need to come together with other forces to create new parties and not just see their own development as the be-all and end-all of everything. As Trotsky wrote in 1934, “it is necessary to see oneself not as a makeshift for the new party, but only as the instrument for its creation”. Unfortunately, in such a key country as France, the possibility of using the LO-LCR election campaign as a springboard for a new party has for the moment been wasted, mainly because of the absolute incomprehension by LO of the need for such a party.

Having defined the type of parties that are necessary and the forces that can come together to form them, we have to see how to bring them about. In this respect, the question of political pluralism and democratic functioning is crucial. This has to be approached on two levels. In the first place, the experience of the workers’ movement in the twentieth century has to be taken on board. Specifically, we have to draw a balance sheet of Stalinism and re-establish the tradition of the workers’ movement up to the early years of the Communist International, of non-monolithic parties with the right of tendencies, currents and platforms to exist. In this respect the influence of Stalinism made itself felt far beyond the pro-Moscow Communist parties. The Maoist organisations which came from those parties did not break from Stalinism.

More surprisingly at first sight, but unquestionably, Stalinism influenced the Trotskyist organisations that should have been its antithesis. This can be explained in a general way by the pervasive influence of Stalinism in the workers’ movement, which affected even its enemies. More specifically, the struggle to maintain small groups over several decades after 1945 faced with powerful Stalinist and social democratic parties played a role. This situation favoured authoritarian internal regimes in which “democratic centralism” became not so much a means of reaching decisions through broad democratic discussion and achieving unity in action, as an instrument for sending orders down from the top, maintaining ideological discipline and discouraging independent thought. This was a perversion of the Marxist tradition. All the Trotskyist organisations have been faced with the need to break from this perversion. Some have broken more than others, and some not at all.

There is a more specific reason for pluralism. Generally speaking, new parties have come into being not through splits in existing organisations. There is the example of the PRC, but even there the original split in the Communist Party was added to by not insignificant forces from other backgrounds, including Trotskyists. Elsewhere new formations have come about by assembling forces from different backgrounds. In Portugal the Left Bloc was formed in 1999 from an initiative by three groups, the Trotskyist PSR, the ex-Maoist UDP, and Politica XXI, a group of intellectuals from a mainly CP background. In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance was formed in 1989, involving Trotskyists, a section of the Communist Party, a left Socialist group and a Green group. In Norway the Red Electoral Alliance was originally the electoral front of a Maoist party, which became a broader party in the 1990s, opening itself up to other socialist forces. In Turkey the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) was formed in 1996 involving Guevarist organisations, sections of the pro-Moscow parties, Trotskyists and others. That is likely to be the pattern elsewhere. Bringing together organisations from different traditions, from different cultures as well as integrating many independents who have often had negative experiences in unions and parties is a delicate task. It calls for patience and tolerance. It necessitates a genuinely democratic way of functioning, with guaranteed rights for different currents. This will also be the only kind of functioning that will be attractive to the new generations that will form the bulk of new socialist parties.

But formal democratic rights are not enough. It is necessary to break from the mentality of groups which think that they are right and all others are wrong, that they are the revolutionary party. It is necessary to break from the attitude that other socialist currents are enemy organisations. That does not mean that we do not discuss differences and argue against positions that we consider mistaken. It does mean that we do so in a spirit of fraternal collaboration, with the aim of achieving greater cohesion and unity in action.

In many ways the tasks that we face today are similar to those in the period when the first mass parties of the working class were established at the end of the nineteenth century, but with an important difference. We are not starting from nothing. In between times, the twentieth century happened. The working class has been through the experience of wars, revolutions, Stalinism and fascism. From these experiences lessons have been drawn which have reinforced the original Marxist analysis of capitalist society. All of that is relevant if we want to work out a strategy for socialist transformation in the new century. That is why we think it is necessary to build a Marxist tendency or tendencies within new socialist parties, to enrich these parties with Marxist methods of analysis and the lessons of the history of the workers’ movement, to better understand the world in order to change it. That is what the International Socialist Movement aims to do.

To return to our starting point, one of the lessons of the history of the workers’ movement is that the struggle for socialism will ultimately fail if it is limited to one country, that the struggle has to be international because capitalism is international. That is why it is important for the SSP to develop the maximum number of contacts with socialists on all continents and to support international mobilisations against capitalist globalisation. But we have to particularly develop links with socialists in Europe in order to put forward a socialist alternative to the Europe of the bosses. There is now perceptible progress towards the coordination of socialist formations in Europe. A first meeting took place in Lisbon in March 2000 and was followed by a second meeting in Paris in December. The SSP was present at both.2 On the basis of these first meetings, it will be possible in the next few months to take further steps towards establishing more structured links and deepening the dialogue between socialist forces in Europe.

In the medium term, we have to work towards the creation of an international alliance of socialist parties. Of course there already exist international organisations, such as the CWI, to which the ISM belonged until January this year.3 No existing international organisation can expect to have all the answers to all the issues that confront the workers’ movement internationally. Nor is it viable to think that a mass international will develop solely from or around one of the existing international formations. Nevertheless, we think that these organisations can play a key role in bringing about a broader alliance of socialist forces. In the course of a wide-ranging debate that lasted nearly three years, the ISM argued for the CWI to play such a role, as indeed it had seemed to be starting to do in the mid-1990s. This debate was sparked off by the opposition of the CWI leadership to our strategy of launching the SSP in 1998. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that this opposition was linked to a general incomprehension of the processes of recomposition of the workers’ movement internationally. The very success of the SSP, instead of making the CWI leadership reconsider its attitude, merely hardened it in its opposition and led to an increasingly hostile attitude on its part towards the ISM. This finally resulted in the decision of the ISM, taken by a large majority at a conference held in Glasgow on January 14, to leave the CWI.4


1. Maoist organisations developed in the 1960s as splits from the pro-Moscow Communist parties under the impact of the apparently more radical Chinese Revolution and its leader, Mao Zedong. Maoism was never a serious force in Britain, but it was in other European countries, and even more so in the Third World. Many of these organisations have now disappeared, but some have evolved and play a part in the process of building new parties.

2. The meeting in Lisbon was also attended by representatives of the Left Bloc (Portugal), the Red Electoral Alliance (Norway), the Red-Green Alliance (Denmark), the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League, France), the ÖDP (Turkey), Alternative Space (a left current within the United Left in Spain), the Galician National Bloc and the Catalan Republican Left. The meeting in Paris was attended by the LCR, the Red Electoral Alliance, the Left Bloc, the Red-Green Alliance, as well as by the Left (Luxembourg), Solidarites (Switzerland), Manifesto (Greece), the London Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers’ Party (England). The ÖDP, Alternative Space and the Basque organisation Zutik helped to prepare the conference but were not able to participate in it.

3. Apart from the CWI, the main organisations are the Fourth International (United Secretariat); the International Socialist Tendency of which the British SWP is part; the International Workers’ League and International Workers’ Unity, both largely based in Latin America and best known by their Spanish initials, LIT and UIT.

4. All the documents and statements of the ISM relating to this debate and to our departure from the CWI can be found on our web site: <>.