An appeal for unity of the working-class socialist left, January 2001

Unite the socialists

The unity achieved in the Socialist Alliances should inspire and encourage us all. United, we are stronger. United, the working-class activist left can make a political impact impossible when we're dispersed.

The Socialist Alliance banner on the recent Vauxhall demonstration in Luton.

The Socialist Alliance marks significant progress from the days of disparate left factions pointedly ignoring or denouncing each other. But an alliance is not enough.

If we can unite for election campaigns, why not also for day-to-day struggles and to construct a united party?

The way that the Tories have been able to make political capital on the issues of asylum-seekers, the euro, and fuel tax should be a warning to us.

New Labour will still probably win the next election, putting on a relatively left face for the pre-election period - but the general perspective is that of a Labour Party whittling away its links to the working class, and hardening its right-wing drift, generates a Tory Party further to its right which will eventually replace it in government. Moreover, experience in many other countries in Europe, and in Britain in the late 1970s, points to the danger of the far right gaining ground.

There is widespread disgust with and anger against New Labour. That anger and disgust will boost the right unless the working-class activist left can offer credible alternatives.

More than the sum of its parts

None of the existing activist left groups is really a party. If we bring those groups - or most of the main ones - together, then we can also draw in also many thousands of activists who have revolutionary socialist ideas but will not at present accept affiliation to any of the groups. With that combination we will have a whole much more than the sum of its parts. In activity, it will be a force not only in elections but in every big struggle, in a very large range of workplaces and trade unions, and on hundreds of housing estates. In the intellectual and political development of the left, a situation of isolated groups, each one talking to itself in its own dialect, is the greatest enemy of Marxist clarity and objectivity. Honest and free dialogue among Marxists, linked to joint action, is its greatest friend.

Obviously unity presupposes discussion on the issues - not necessarily, or even probably, reaching agreement on every major issue, but at least making an assessment of our differences and how we will deal with them.

Socialism to us means not the police state of Stalinism, but its polar opposite, the self-organised power of the working class breaking the entrenched power of the billionaires and their bureaucratic state machine.

Socialism means a society restructured according to the working-class principle of solidarity. It means an economy of democratic planning, based on common ownership of the means of production, a high level of technology, education, culture and leisure, economic equality, no material privileges for officials, and accountability. Beyond the work necessary to ensure secure material comfort for all, it means the maximum of individual liberty and autonomy.

Focus on the trade unions

Socialism can be achieved only by the working class organising itself and liberating itself. Thus we must focus primarily on the trade union movement, rather than on 'radical' movements without a working-class or socialist perspective. The trade unions are the products of long struggles by the working class for the right to build their own organisations to protect them from the arrogant power of the bosses.

The unions represent the working class incompletely, unsatisfactorily, binding the class to capitalism. Yet they remain the major organisations of the working class, the major vehicles of class struggle. There is no short-term prospect of them being replaced by new organisation.

We must develop the unions, transform them, reinvigorate them with socialist purpose. To do that, the radical activist minority must organise itself and equip itself with clear ideas.

That is how we see the task of a working-class socialist organisation: to spread the ideas of unfalsified socialism, to educate itself in socialist theory and history, to assist every battle for working-class self-liberation, and to weld together socialists into a decisive force, able to revolutionise the labour movement so that it, in turn, can revolutionise society.

Necessary for a united organisation would be a skeleton of shared basic principles (on class struggle, the state, internationalism, and so on) and some broad agreement on where to go now. Beyond that the united party could live with big differences on analytical and theoretical questions, and on tactics - so long as it had the organisational and political framework to do so. We do not believe that the Scottish Socialist Party is an ideal model, but it has certainly shown that broader activist left unity is possible. If in Scotland, why not in England and Wales?

Major issues

The following seem to us to be major issues needing discussion as we work towards the creation of a united party.

The trade unions: Even in their atrophied state and after many years of defeat, they remain the bedrock organisations of our class. Whilst political activity outside the unions may bring tens and hundreds into revolutionary politics, a mass strike wave has the possibility of bringing in thousands. A real revolutionary party must aim to fight to intervene not only with clarity during strikes but also every day.

We propose joint meetings of the members of the different activist left groups in each union and industry, to discuss joint work to build rank-and-file movements geared round the key industrial issues, based on reps and stewards but also open to individual union activists.

New Labour: The Blairites have destroyed most of the links between the Labour Party and the unions, and have shut down almost all of the inner-Party mechanisms that in the past allowed for some degree of accountability of elected representatives. Their aim has been to destroy the Labour Party as a vehicle of working-class politics.

The trade union leaders, demoralised by their defeats from the Tories, have offered no resistance to the Blairites. Just as they call for co-operation with the bosses in the workplace, so too they practise co-operation with the agents of the bosses in the leadership of the Labour Party. They have reduced the trade unions to dumb extras in the tragedy of the Blairite takeover of the Labour Party.

The trade unions have to be broken from Blair, but we have to oppose the drift to unions becoming apolitical. We should fight for the unions to discuss and act on wider political issues, in concert with other unions; that is to retain a political voice.

It would be a delusion to expect that unions, apart from a small number of union branches and perhaps regions, will affiliate to the Socialist Alliance, even in the event of an impressive election campaign. Our general line should be for the recreation of a mass workers' party based on the trade unions. Within that we fight for our policies. We fight for an organised, coherent working-class socialist current (or party) to be built within the broader struggle for the self-renovation of the labour movement. This general line does not mean "re-inventing Labourism" unless one assumes that reformists will win the arguments as the working class politically redefines itself. The weight and importance in this process of the struggles that unions could wage using their remaining positions of leverage in the New Labour structure need to be discussed soberly and in detail.

Workers' government: The question of government is central to working-class politics. If the workers' movement does not have a socialist notion of government, then it will have a bourgeois one. That is the lesson of Labour's 15-year drift to the right in pursuit of government between 1982 and 1997. Gut anti-Toryism resulted in one bosses' government being replaced by another. There is no parliamentary road to socialism. But even a reforming working-class-based government could destabilise and weaken capitalism. The scrapping of the Tories' anti-union legislation alone would open the way for a resurgence of working-class struggle.

Government based on the labour movement

We propose to all those in the labour movement who want a government loyal to the interests of the working class that they form with us a common front to fight for a government based on the labour movement which would push through such measures as:

  • A workers' charter of trade-union rights to strike, to picket, to take solidarity action, etc.
  • The restoration of the National Health Service and the welfare state;
  • Equal education opportunities and free education for all;
  • A decent minimum wage for all;
  • The return to public ownership of the privatised industries, this time under workers' and community control;
  • Taxation of the rich, and expropriation of the big banks and financial institutions which dominate economic life through the 'casino economy' of high finance.

Reform and revolution

To fight for, win and hold power, the working class will need to develop its own institutions of socialist democracy, more democratic, accountable, flexible and responsive than any parliamentary system. Socialism will not be achieved through the reform of the capitalist state, but through the breaking-up of the military and bureaucratic structures of that state.

We do not counterpose the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism to the struggle for reforms. On the contrary: only by fighting for reforms can the working class rally, organise and educate itself to be able to make a revolution.

In even the most democratic of capitalist countries, democracy is stunted and warped by the economic power of the capitalists and the dependence of the workers on wage labour. Compared to workers' democracy it is a miserable farce. Yet even bourgeois democracy is a great advance over military rule or Stalinist dictatorship. The fight to maintain and expand democratic rights is an essential part of the self-mobilisation and political development of the working class. As well as advocating specific measures like trade union rights, we believe socialists should discuss summarising their arguments over democratic rights in such formulas as the reorganisation of Britain as a federal republic, and the institution of a comprehensive Bill of Rights.

The experience of Russia: Since the Bolshevik-led revolution in 1917, the attitude to take to that revolution and then to the USSR have been issues that socialists could not ignore. The USSR has now collapsed, but it is still necessary to explain why that collapse is not the "failure of socialism".

In our view, the 1917 revolution was a genuine working-class revolution that placed power in the hands of workers' councils. But the Bolsheviks knew that socialism could not be built in one country, lease of all one economically backward and devastated by war. They were establishing a bridgehead for a working-class revolution which they hoped would triumph in the advanced countries of Europe, to create a union of workers' states that could build on the most advanced technology and culture developed by capitalism.

Because of the lack of adequate Marxist parties outside Russia, the revolutionary upsurge in Europe was defeated. The workers' revolution remained isolated in Russia. The Stalinist bureaucracy emerged in those conditions of defeat and isolation. It murdered the revolutionaries in Russia and wrecked revolutionary movements abroad. By the 1930s workers' power in Russia had been utterly extinguished. The Stalinist systems, in the USSR and worldwide, were systems of state-organised exploitation, historical cul-de-sacs, based upon atomisation of the working class.

In 1989-91 the Stalinist regimes in the USSR and its East European satellites collapsed, overthrown by popular revolutions. Those events showed conclusively that those old regimes did not represent a broad road of progress beyond capitalism.

The new regimes have privatised their economies and pauperised large layers of the population. Even so, it was entirely right to support the popular revolutions in 1989-91. They opened up the possibility for the working class to organise independently. Since the emancipation of the working class must be the task of the workers themselves, that is the first essential for any socialist progress. We oppose the capitalist policies of the new regimes and support the anti-Stalinist socialist groups and independent workers' movements in Eastern Europe and the USSR.


Decades when Stalinist parties and Stalinist literature dominated the left resulted in semi- or quarter-Stalinist ideas seeping into the thought of even the bravest and most militant anti-Stalinist socialists. We need to reconstruct the political culture of socialism, notably on imperialism and the national question.

Against political domination, we fight for the right of self-determination of all nations and for consistent democracy. Against the impositions of the IMF on poorer countries, we support the struggles of workers and peasants in those countries. Against the depredations of international capital, we fight for social ownership and for the planned use of the world's resources and technology to get rid of poverty. Against globalised capital, we fight not "against globalisation", but for global solidarity.

This fight against imperialism is a part of our fight against capitalism, not something superseding and overriding it. The capitalist classes even of the poorest countries are oppressor, not oppressed, classes. Every substantial capitalist class - and ruling Stalinist bureaucracy, too - has imperialistic impulses. Indonesia's domination of East Timor, or Serbia's drive to dominate Kosova and large parts of Bosnia and Croatia, were as much to be opposed as the imperialist ventures of larger, richer states.

We need a discussion on Ireland which relates back to the Bolshevik tradition of consistent democracy on national questions. We believe that the only solution to the British-Irish conflict is a free united Ireland which recognises as much regional autonomy for the distinct Protestant Irish community in the north-east as is compatible with the right to self-determination of Irish-majority Catholic people. In practice this would mean some sort of federal Ireland.

The revolutionary party

The revolutionary party we need: There are many important issues that have divided the revolutionary left over the years. Some have proved intractable, not necessarily because of the theoretically irreconcilable nature of the dispute, but because there was no common membership to form a common judgement.

According to Lenin in 1907, "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action... Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party program must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings" (Collected Works volume 10 p.442).

That was the regime of the Bolshevik party that made the Russian revolution of October 1917. The party fought for the maximum clarity of ideas, and the maximum decisiveness and unity of action; but minorities routinely and ordinarily expressed themselves in the party's public press - within due limits of space and priority for the majority-decided policy - or in extreme cases published their own additional journals. That was also the model for the Communist Parties in their best years, before Stalinism. That model would give us a framework for uniting the activist left today in one party while tackling our political differences honestly rather than trying to push them under the carpet. Such party unity would actually, in some ways, be easier than electoral unity. While the Alliance has a single candidate in each constituency who obviously can only express one view on any issue - so pluralism largely has to be accommodated by a sort of haphazard local autonomy - a weekly party paper can easily headline a majority policy while giving due rights to minority views.

Groupings of opinion should also have unfettered rights to organise inside the party. The limited right to organise factions only on certain sorts of issues and for certain periods which has been the SWP's rule, for example, since the early 1970s, is not sufficient, because it leaves the established leadership as the only free-ranging, permanently-organised faction, and a faction which has all the powers of initiative in the organisation. Basic democratic procedures, and the neutrality of the party machine, as a machine, in debates within the party, are also necessary.

A democratic regime cannot undo the fact that being in the minority is less pleasant than being in the majority. It cannot, and should not, remove the element of passion and anger from serious political disputes, or make them as calm as abstruse academic debates. It cannot prevent all splits. It can, however, do at least six things.

  1. It can increase the chances of reaching clear and accurate conclusions.
  2. It can provide the party with insurance against the certainty that sometimes its established leadership will be wrong and need correction.
  3. It makes it likely that members and sympathisers will understand controversial decisions better.
  4. It trains those members and sympathisers in the arts and habits of dialogue and debate which they need to operate in the labour movement.
  5. It makes the party press more educative and interesting.
  6. And it gives minorities a guarantee that they will not be crushed into silence, and thus gives some protection against unnecessary splits.

Of course democracy has overheads. Of course democratic debate would have to be subject to definite structures which allow for proper, prompt decision-making and protect the activists from over-garrulous windbags. But the activist left has lost far, far too much by being disunited. In the widespread "new anti-capitalist" mood, elements for a new generation of revolutionary activists are forming. A lot - maybe the whole future of humanity - rests on how well the existing activist left, organised mainly by hold-outs from the earlier generation of the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, can serve the new generation. The electoral unity is a good start. It is not enough. We call on all the groups in the Socialist Alliance to start serious discussion on party unity - possibilities of practical collaboration beyond the electoral sphere, frameworks for structured debate. We cannot be certain that we can make unity work. We should certainly not allow ourselves to fail simply by not trying.

We propose:

  1. Extended joint activity, in the first place in the trade unions, and in campaigns like the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti Trade Union Laws (Reclaim our Rights) and the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation.
  2. Systematic and serious dialogue both locally and nationally - and internationally, too, as far as we can - on the political issues we have raised here. Joint efforts to organise local socialist public meetings or forums on current issues, with provision for orderly debate from the floor and from the platform where appropriate. Joint local political education programmes, Marxist study classes, etc.
  3. As a vehicle for both these, the launch of a joint weekly paper of the activist left, geared to agitation on the many issues where we agree but also democratically edited to accommodate expression of minority views. We are in favour of pooling the resources of the existing papers into such a joint publication, which could have a richer content and much wider circulation.

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