The failures of the left
The failures and irresponsibilities of the revolutionary Marxist movement have played a big role in creating the present situation. The most weighty failure of the left since the 1960s has been its inability to build a rank and file movement in the trade unions. Had such a movement existed, much that has happened could have gone very differently. For example, such a rank-and-file movement in the unions might have been able to organise the solidarity action that would have made the difference between victory and defeat for the heroic miners' strike of 1984-5. Did such a movement exist now, things would be posed very differently as regards rousing the trade unions to fight against the Blair government for free trade unions, for restoration of the Health Service, and to reclaim the Labour Party for the trade union movement.
Something like intra-left dialogue may now be getting under way, but for decades there has been more or less none. The "groups" and "parties" have usually been organised as tight single-faction organisations. Each group has had a pre-designated leadership, and a narrowly defined set of ideas which function as shibboleths and in fact are not open to discussion. Internal dissent has not been allowed, or has been allowed only so long as it does not impinge on the cardinal doctrines or personages of the group. Dissent in the public press has been very, very rare, and for most such groups simply unknown. Minorities have not been allowed to organise freely. The possibility of putting up an across-the-board alternative slate on a distinct political platform to challenge the incumbent leadership simply has not existed.
Besides the formalities and structures, most groups have also long had the defining spirit of the narrow, persecuting religious sect. The feeling and emotions and commitment which are a necessary part of any sustained socialist activity have been focused on the group, "the party" - the Church of the Lord. It has been counterposed to everything, including the labour movement.
That spirit - cultivated and cherished by the organisers of the groups - has given the final stamp to the groups' character as sects. Such formations are quasi-religious. They need intolerance, a "party regime" that keeps an iron grip, and the typical internal atmosphere of an intense religious cult - or else they would disintegrate. They need certainties and dogmas and infallible leaders, and a faith which separates the faithful and the saved from the sinners and those who are "anti-party". These can be sustained and kept in place only when dissent is forbidden or limited and ritualised. A political culture in which every participant has the taken-for-granted right to disagree with the majority, to pose awkward questions, to express dissenting opinions and to proselytise for them - that would be anathema to the quasi-religious "Leninist" sects. They do not follow Lenin's ideas, but at best those foisted on the Communist Parties by Zinoviev and then Stalin in the 1920s.
Contact with a more open, democratic and rational way of organising would dissolve the pretensions of the leaders of such cults, and dissipate the holy aura surrounding their ideas and the organisation. For that reason such groups not only control or stifle elements of such an approach within their own ranks, but they also cultivate and foment extreme hostility and hatred for it when it comes from outside. Instead of teaching their supporters to reason about the world, they teach them dogmas. Complicated theories are reduced to phrases packaging hopes and wishes about, for example, Israel/Palestine or Ireland, which then fill the space that should be filled by a rational working-class account of the world we have to deal with.
That has been the spirit of the cults and the sects, ranging from the relatively civilised SP and SWP through to the old, openly crazy WRP and some of its fragments. We must learn the lessons from the experience of so many who have tried to be honest socialists, but who tragically have fallen back into the primitive, semi-religious, sectist approach characteristic of the dawn of the pre-Marxist labour movements in the last century and earlier.
The pseudo-"Leninist" sect regime is immensely wasteful. It works to create splits out of every dispute. In any serious dispute, the minority must either crush the existing leadership, be crushed itself, or split. This also works to justify the absolute predominance of the leadership. They are the alternative to splits, disruption and further fragmentation. If not us, chaos!
Such regimes cannot give revolutionaries a rounded Marxist education, or make them into self-sustaining revolutionary socialist cadres. That is one of the key reasons for the perpetual haemorrhaging on the left, and for the inability of so many, when they become disillusioned with their "parent" organisation, to reorient themselves and the parent group or, failing that, learn and start afresh on a more healthy basis.
Moreover, it works against spreading socialist ideas in the labour movement. An organisation where "the line" is established internally by top-down decree will use the same methods of proclamation and hectoring in the labour movement - with self-sterilising results.
The root of sectarianism and sectism
The root sectarianism is sectarianism in relation to the working class and its movement. Revolutionary socialist organisations do not sink into the existing labour movement and accept it at its present level. We try to develop it and lead it forward - as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, to represent the future of the movement in the movement of the present; but we relate to the working class and its movement, at all its levels, as it is. Without such an orientation, Marxists can be anything you like, academics, ivory-tower prophets, moralising critics of society and of history - they will not be serious working-class revolutionaries. Instead of their ideas being a guide to action, they will become the shibboleths of the sects into which potentially healthy socialist organisations have let themselves shrink and sink.
Marx explained that: "The sect sees its raison d'etre and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement". The sectarian leader, "like everyone who maintains he has a panacea for the sufferings of the masses in his pocket... gave his agitation from the outset a religious and sectarian character. Every sect is in fact religious... instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation, he wanted to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe". To "demand... of the class movement that it should subordinate itself to the movement of a particular sect", or to "want to preserve your 'own workers' movement'..." is likewise the mark of the sectarian. Letter to J B Schweitzer, 13 October 1868.
Everything flows from this core sectarianism towards the working class and its labour movement. It is the key to understanding the state the revolutionary left has let itself get into, and the state the broad labour movement is in. If the current college-bred trade union bureaucracy can play the deadly role it does play, that is in part because of the failures of the Marxist left.
Much of the left stood aside in the struggles inside the Labour Party - which was then indisputably the political wing of the trade unions, the working class in politics - after 1979. Some of the revolutionary left's biggest contingents have stood aside from the working of organising the rank and file in the trade unions, or, if not stood aside, at least stood back.
A viable organisation able to do the work of agitation, propaganda and organisation in the working class - the work that will make it a real revolutionary party - cannot be built except in the working class, in working-class struggle, and in the working-class movement. A "revolutionary party" that is not engaged with all thekey political processes in the working class and in its existing movement, and which does not offer perspectives for the broad labour movement and try to carve them out, can not be a revolutionary party in more than name. It will be an a-political fetish for its devotees, not a political tool for working-class activists. There is a horrible parallel between the "build-the-party" sectarianism that has gripped so many "parties" of the left and a certain sort of old Irish Republican Army militarism. One of those who tried in the 1930s to turn the plebeian, and often working-class, IRA in the 26 Counties away from sterile militarism and abstention from politics, George Gilmore, had a striking image for it. While the social struggles were going on, he said, the fetishists of arid militarism were 'off on our own, performing military drill in the corner of some out-of-the-way field'. Of too many neo-Trotskyist "parties" could it be said that when this or that working-class struggle was going on, in the trade unions, in the Labour Party, or on the streets, they were off on their own "building the party". Yet, if the revolutionary left is able to shed even a part of its encrusted sectarianism and unite in action, then we can hope to begin to realise the latent strength of the labour movement.
How can we rebuild socialist politics in the working class?
The duty of socialists is to go to the working class and into the working-class movement to help organise, reorganise and regenerate it, and to plant the seeds of unfalsified socialism one more. This can be done by linking the day-to-day concerns of the working class, and the struggle for reforms, with the fight for socialism.
The demand for "state-of-the-art health care, free at the point of delivery", for example, is today the demand for the establishment of values, priorities, and recognised working-class rights that are starkly at odds with the values, priorities and interests of those who control the wealth in our society and the politicians who serve them - the Thatchers, Blairs and the renegade one-time leftists like Blunkett and Beckett and Cook.
It is implicitly to demand the re-allocation of social resources and the reorganisation of society so that we can establish equality in the right to life. It is a clear assertion, in terms of the felt needs of millions of people, of human solidarity, counterposed to the exploitative and cannibalistic, that is, capitalistic, practices dominant in our society and glorified in its governing ideas as expressed by politicians, newspapers and television. It demands and can mobilise people to fight for, the reorganisation of our society. The idea of free state-of-the-art health care for all implies and proposes a struggle for needs immediately felt by millions of working-class people. The aim can in principle be achieved even under capitalism, if enough people organise and mobilise, lobby and act - by strikes, occupations of public buildings, and other forms of direct action. At the same time, even though it can be won under capitalism, it challenges the fundamentals of the capitalist system - its ideas, values, priorities, and distribution of resources. People drawn into action around the one demand will, especially if socialists explain it to them, begin to make the connection between this question and the way society is organised. They will think about society and their place in it. We "can't afford" modern health care for all? Then tax the rich! Reallocate resources! Remake society! Put human needs first.
If workers organise, mobilise and agitate even on this one issue, then other "adjacent" social issues will also be brought to the fore. For example, industrial action for the Health Service raises the question of trade union rights. Action and success generates confidence and combativity that brings things near which, a short time ago, were far off and seemingly impossible.
A big energising mass campaign on the Health Service - a campaign of the scale and scope of the old Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and that is surely possible, given the mass feeling that exists - would help prepare and generate mass working-class action for free trade unions and many other things.
Free state-of-the-art health care is therefore an explosive demand. It is no wonder the time-serving trade union leaders and the neo-Thatcherite Labour politicians have no time for it. It is what Marxists have called a "transitional demand". Such transitional demands, of which there are many - and which can be joined into a linked chain from here to the socialist transformation of society - form the bridge between reform and revolutionary socialist politics.
A united organisation of even a few thousand socialists following this approach could become a substantial force in politics and the labour movement. Its activity would be far weightier than the sum total of what is done at present by the various different groups. It would have the means to link together different local battles against cuts into a big and very popular campaign to restore and expand welfare-state services and benefits, following up the initiative of the present-day Welfare State Network on a much grander scale. It would have substantial fractions in many trade unions, sufficient to create a strong network of solidarity for any dispute.
It would take the existing United Campaign for Trade Union Rights - so far actively supported, among left groups, only by the AWL and the Socialist Labour Party - and turn it into a force whose speakers would visit every active union branch in the country. It would put the issue of rights to strike, picket, organise and act in solidarity well up on the agenda in every trade union conference. It would mobilise students for free education, and create a visible profile for socialist politics in almost every university and many Further Education colleges. It would probably have enough weight in the labour movement to make a reality of the idea of a new Labour Representation Committee - a broad coalition for working-class representation - floated by the AWL and others in 1996.
It could and should combine "fraction" work by a section of its members in the Labour Party with "open" work, as the Communist Party did in its early days. Its trade-union activists would routinely seek positions as delegates from their union branches to local Labour Parties, using those positions both to bring political debate into the union and to take union concerns into the Labour Party.
Where the local branch of the united socialist organisation had sufficient numbers, and local Labour branches or Labour Youth groups retained some openness, members would join them. The basic axis of the work in the Labour Party would be to promote the principle of working-class representation, solidarity with workers' struggles, and the campaigns on key class issues like the welfare state and trade union rights.
Under the current Blairite regime, much of this work would have to be "underground". Marxists should not be manipulative or undemocratic; but the Blair faction is. Marxists would not be "infiltrating" alien ideas into the labour movement, but the Blair faction is outlawing those ideas within the labour movement which correspond to its best traditions and to the interests and concerns of the rank and file.
To sum up: the tasks of the serious left are, by way of Marxist propaganda, agitation and organisation:
1. to educate, multiply, and group together the revolutionary socialists and Marxists;
2. to bind them into a coherent organisation, capable of both collective political thought and united action, and capable of knitting together the political and industrial fronts of the class struggle with the constant battle on the "ideological" front, the battle of ideas within the working class;
3. to promote the class struggle day to day;
4. to organise fractions in the trade unions and among unorganised groups of workers, youth, etc; and, as long as that proves possible and worthwhile, in the Labour Parties;
5. to organise a class-struggle left in the trade unions and Labour Party;
6. to build a broad-based rank and file movement in the trade unions which pursues militant class-struggle policies and fights for democracy; this should include a drive to spread trade unionism;
7. to work steadily towards the regeneration or replacement of the structures and institutions of the existing class-collaborationist labour movement, and towards the movement's reorganisation - augmented from the very large layers of workers presently unorganised - into a new movement, led by and grouped around a revolutionary Marxist party.
A united left could build a militant rank and file movement in industry; build solidarity with workers' and liberation struggles everywhere, West and East; promote workers' internationalism as our answer to the growing internationalisation of capital; and make the labour movement accessible to, and responsive to the demands of, women, black people and lesbians and gays.
The Marxist organisation has to be built now, made able to act through all the different parts of the labour movement now and all the way to the ultimate transformation which will put the Marxists at the head of the reorganised movement. That can not happen without the continual interaction of class struggle, the Marxist organisation, the labour movement, and the broader working class. That interaction cannot be made to happen without the Marxist organisation growing - before the full transformation of the labour movement - by ones and twos, then dozens and hundreds, and then by thousands and tens of thousands.
Fight for a workers' government
The general unifying idea of the Marxists' activity in the period ahead should be the fight for a workers' government. This is not just for the future. Now it ties together all the questions, including the class character of the Labour Party and the proper concerns of the trade unions in politics, and focuses them on the axial question: the class character of the government and the state. We propose to 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 of a Labour Party reclaimed by its working-class activists and purged of the Blair leadership, or of a new workers' party based on the trade unions, which would push through such measures as:
* The liberation of the trade unions from the shackles riveted on them by Tory laws which outlaw such essential trade union action as solidarity strikes;
* The restoration of the National Health Service;
* The restoration of the welfare state;
* A decent minimum wage for all;
* Equal education opportunities and free education for all;
* The return to public ownership of the industries pillaged by the Tories, this time under proper democratic 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, to acquire the resources to establish jobs and welfare for all.
Class is the decisive test. To restore the idea of class politics to the centre of the labour movement's concerns, we have to shake that movement out of its hypnosis with official bourgeois politics, and win it back to an understanding that we need a workers' party and a workers' government, because working-class politics is more than the see-saw of the Westminster party game.
The question of government is central. If the labour movement does not have a working-class notion of government, then it will have a bourgeois (right now, Blairite) one. That is the lesson of Labour's 15-year drift to the right in pursuit of government, and its miserable performance now in office. Even a reforming working-class-based government confined to Britain could do a great deal. However, an effective workers' government, a government with the scope and power to submit European capitalism to its control, will have to be a Europe-wide government. The idea of a workers' government points directly to the idea of a workers' united Europe. The objective of a workers' government in Britain and in Europe - that is the only thing that gives focus, drive and sense to mass working-class politics. Only the reinstatement at the centre of working-class politics of the objective of a workers' government, defined and measured by our class interests, can give coherence to the fight we have to wage against the New Labour government.
To win the battle of democracy
The united organisation would also take the fore on the much-bruited and much-traduced question of democracy. By making it the norm for the government (and thus unelected advisers) to control parliament, and the parliamentarians to control the Labour Party; by increasingly making politics into a media "show"; and by marginalising working-class interests in the Labour Party, the Blair faction has damaged not only Labour democracy but also democracy in British society. Vast numbers of people are effectively disenfranchised, with no perceived option except to vote for what they reluctantly define as a "lesser evil".
The very existence of a visible united socialist organisation would enlarge democracy. And the fight for an extension of democracy would help cleanse the socialist movement of the residual Stalinist attitudes on this question which have had such a grip on most of the neo-Trotskyist currents. It would help prepare the way on the revolutionary left for the replacement of regimes of dictatorship by sacerdotal caste or pontiff, in sects, by the democratic self-organisation without which the left can never unite.
The united socialist organisation would also cut through all the maunderings of the Jenkins report on voting systems by proposing a fight to radicalise democracy on lines pioneered by Trotsky in a programme for French workers in 1934:
"As long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie. However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to 'democratic' socialism that they be faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic [the regime from 1870 to World War 2] but of the Convention of 1793 [the high point of the great bourgeois French Revolution]. Down with the Senate [the upper house of parliament], which is elected by limited suffrage, and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion! Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction!
"A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker. This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers' power. We want to attain our objective not by armed conflicts between the various groups of toilers, but by real workers' democracy, by propaganda and loyal criticism, by the voluntary regrouping of the great majority of the proletariat under the flag of true communism."
A democratic party
The situation in the broad labour movement is not of the best. But we have strengths and opportunities that the left can build on. One is the anger and desire for new answers of workers and youth disgusted by New Labour, and of the millions who will become disillusioned in the period ahead.
Another is the fact that, despite all setbacks, there are in Britain, in or around the organised left groups, active or semi-active, many thousands of Marxists. Many have won the respect of their workmates for their work in trade-union positions. Many of the semi-active would become more active again if they could see a clear way forward. Even partial left-wing unity would have a tremendous power of attraction for such people.
There are many differences among the working-class socialists. Some are minor. Others are of the utmost importance, or so Workers' Liberty believes. We would fight for them vehemently within a united working-class socialist party. Without sorting them out, that party could not gain the clarity of understanding and purpose which we believe necessary for revolutionary action. But for the left to continue on separate islets, each with its own circle of contacts and activities, with no dialogue of ideas or unity of action, is not the best way to gain clarity. A situation of isolated sects, each one talking to itself in its own dialect, is the greatest enemy of Marxist clarity and objectivity, just as honest and free intra-Marxist dialogue linked to joint action is its greatest friend.
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. Within that framework it could live with big differences on analytical and theoretical questions, and on tactics. But how? Differences would be "inherited" from the different groups which united to form the organisation; new differences would inevitably arise as new situations developed. How could the organisation deal with them?
There should be free expression; democratic procedures; neutrality of the party machine, as a machine, in political discussions. Groupings of opinion should have unfettered rights to organise inside the organisation. 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 power of initiative in the organisation.
The organisation should have a central press, a weekly paper, which, while giving their due first place to the commonly-agreed basic politics and established majority lines, gives wide scope for debate. Every minority should have a right to express itself in the public press, within appropriate limits of space and subject to the exigencies of an agreement to give priority to majority-decided action. At least for a transitional period, different groupings within the party should have the right to publish their own additional discussion journals. That, contrary to myth, was the regime in the Bolshevik party that made the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Lenin explained in 1907, for example: "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 programme must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings" (Collected Works volume 10 p.442).
We organise the Alliance for Workers' Liberty in that spirit. Workers' Liberty conducts its discussions openly in the pages of our magazine. To a considerable extent, the debates that should have occupied the whole left, but have been absent from it, have taken place in Workers' Liberty and Socialist Organiser over the last twenty years. The list of subjects is a long one.
We have had the only debates on the left in the 1980s on the European Union. The same with Ireland: in no other publication has there been a wide-ranging discussion - a discussion involving participants from the full range of the left - on Ireland's long war. We have debated the Arab-Israeli conflict at length; the nature of the old systems in Eastern Europe; and, most recently, the "workers' government" slogan; whether to vote yes, no, or abstain on the "Good Friday" Agreement in Northern Ireland; and whether and when to back independent working-class election candidates against Labour.
If we had been organised like the cults and sects, then the freedom in our pages, exercised by Workers' Liberty supporters, to challenge our established ideas with argument, scorn, irony or denial, would have dissolved us into nothing. In fact we have thrived on such discussion, because we are a democratic collective, committed to rational democratic working-class politics. We have been able to keep that open regime without losing effectiveness in action. The list of our initiatives on the welfare state, in the trade unions, and among students, and the activities of our sympathisers in the Labour Party, is the proof of that.
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 can not prevent all splits. It can, however, do at least six things.
It can increase the chances of reaching clear and accurate conclusions. It can provide the organisation with essential insurance against the certainty that sometimes its established leadership will be wrong and require correction. It makes it likely that members and sympathisers will understand controversial decisions better. It trains those members and sympathisers in the art and habit of dialogue and debate which they need if the whole organisation is to be able to operate sensitively in the labour movement and learn from the class struggle.
By treating the readers of the organisation's press as adults, rather than children to be given bland, one-sided, simplified, "processed", manipulative summaries rather than the real texture of the reasoning of the "grown-ups" inside the organisation's committees, a democratic regime makes the press more educative and interesting. It gives minorities on big political questions a guarantee that they will not be crushed, silenced, or forced to pretend they think the opposite of their real opinions, and thus protects against unnecessary splits.
The regime of the single admissible "line" gives the activist only the choice of being autocrat or silenced political serf. Hence overheated struggles for dominance, and the secessions of serfs in revolt against being gagged and suppressed. This aspect of the neo-Trotskyist left is a direct infection from Stalinism. It is in no sense Leninist or Bolshevik.
Effectiveness in action
The common objection is that too much democracy puts an organisation into the hands of the articulate middle-class talker, drives out the serious workers, and makes the organisation into a stewpot incapable of coherent action. Certainly endless discussion, without timely decisions and commitment in action, becomes not so much democratic as pointless. For serious socialists, democracy has a purpose: to be more effective in action.
Democracy should not be confused with "the tyranny of structurelessness", a chaotic mess where anyone can debate anything at any length and at any time, and where the loudest voice or the deftest manipulator will come out on top. Democracy has to be structured to be real. Structured democracy presupposes a leadership which has enough moral authority to shape a consensus on structures which give a fair hearing to the quieter or less-practised voices; and even structured democracy is not a cure-all.
Democratic debate presupposes there are different views, of which at least some must be wrong, and correct (or at least adequate) views will not prevail unless someone puts them forward and argues them with sufficient vigour. Even the most democratic revolutionary organisation will founder if it does not develop a leadership with sufficient political capacity, coherence, consistency, vigour, authority, and ability to renew itself.
Such a group will differ from a sect because the leadership will not be unchallengeable or unremovable, and because everybody in the organisation will have equal rights in discussion and decision-making. A democratic regime cannot by itself create such a leadership, but it does establish the best conditions for it to emerge and re-emerge. And generally, the argument that democratic openness costs too much in delay and in effort diverted from external activity is a short-sighted one, as a counting-up of the revolutionary energies wasted and dissipated in decades of excessive splits and sectarian dead-ends will prove.
Anything less than a full unity of all serious working-class socialists which excludes only the sectarian, faintheart and dilettante fringes is a waste. Revolutionary socialist ideas make no sense unless, at times of high working-class mobilisation, they can be quickly grasped by millions of workers as corresponding to the logic of class struggle. Our chief ideas are not obscure results of specialised research, or Talmudic truths handed down by inherited authority, or revelations available only to revered leaders. They are the simplest, most direct translation into political programme of the lessons taught by wide experience of working-class solidarity and struggle. We should be able to unite on them. The "logic of class struggle", however, operates only through human action. It will not create unity for us by an automatic process.
If we wait for unity before we act, then we will never get unity, and we will not accomplish anything else either. We must work for unity. Better than no unity is limited unity - unity only for particular actions, or unity of only a few of the activist left groups. Better than an organisation structured so that it can never be anything but a top-down, one-faction outfit is one which operates a regime which could serve a united movement.
Unity is not an abstract, distant ideal, but a goal of constant struggle.
Workers' Liberty #52 [Jan 1999]