Debate and discussion: What sort of workers' party?

Submitted by Anon on 18 August, 2003 - 6:39

It seems almost flavour of the month. Everyone is declaring for a Workers' Party. But it could have two distinct meanings, and it's important to distinguish the two and work out what is the relation between them.
It could mean a party that is organisationally and organically based on the working class, created from the trade unions and other working class organisations to represent the working class in the political arena. This says nothing about the politics of such a party. Inevitably, as a mass party, its politics will be disputed. Different political currents will fight for political dominance.

But there is another sense in which a party could be a workers party: in that its politics represent the distinct interests of the working class, i.e. a revolutionary Marxist, communist party. This says nothing about its actual class base, or whether it has a mass following.

There are obstacles in the way of both sorts of workers' party. In the first sense, the problem is the Labour Party. Formed out of the unions, a hundred years ago, in response to anti-trade union laws, funded by the unions, with the passive and increasingly grudging allegiance of millions of workers at election time, it can't be just wished away. It is true that in its antiunion laws and its anti-working class policies it is all but indistinguishable from its Thatcherite predecessor. Its government is the most anti-democratic, dragging us into an imperialist war and occupation, against the hugest popular opposition in history. To declare for a workers party means having to say something about what to do about the Labour Party.

For a brief moment just before the war started, with an unprecedented Labour back-bench revolt, Labour MPs looking nervously to their seats, it seemed possible that the party would split. The new left trade union leaders, like Tony Woodley (TGWU) and Derek Simpson (Amicus) talk of 'reclaiming the Party', for the unions to exercise their long-neglected power. The reality, though, is that neither left MPs nor union leaders have the stomach for a fight. They have resolutely opposed any move to no-confidence Blair. None of the unions, even the RMT, have dealt with their members on the Labour NEC who have voted all along the line with Blair, against their union's policy. The constituency parties are dead. The structural changes in the Labour Party mean it is nigh on impossible for the democratic will of the members to affect the policy of the Party, even less so the government. It is the opposite situation from the early 80's when activists from campaigns flooded into the Party and began moves to democratise it. Now the few remaining activists are tearing up their cards and immersing themselves in campaigns. But still any new mass party will have to win over sections of the Labour Party.

So what of a workers party of the other type, the most conscious embodiment of independent working class politics? The biggest problem here is that all the little grouplets think they are already it! Sometimes explicitly, sometimes in practice.

The Socialist Party calls for a "new workers party" by which them mean themselves alone. They take a sectarian attitude both to the Labour Party and the rest of the left. The Socialist Workers Party (the give-away is the name) believe they are it and have abandoned working class politics in favour of cross-class alliances. Their behaviour since the Socialist Alliance conference, their contempt for other forces in the SA, their explicit rejection of class politics as the basis for standing in elections, mean as an organisation they are diametrically opposed to building a party based on w/c politics.

So what's left?

In Solidarity 3/26, we wrote:

"There are openings for the growth of the revolutionary left such as we have not had for two decades. The tremendous upsurge of opposition to Bush's and Blair's war on Iraq, together with the rise of the anti-capitalist movements and the as yet limited, but radically important, revival of real trade unionism in Britain, have combined to create this situation.

"A united revolutionary left organisation could now hope to recruit and politically educate thousands of new people. We have opportunities-and also dangers, in the first place the pressing danger that this chance will be missed. It will be criminal if we let ourselves miss it."

And in practice? "The Fake Left Continues to Rot", "crazies", "morons", "loonies". Is it any surprise that people who are described as some kind of human sewage are reluctant to unite with us? A good rule of thumb in politics, as in cards, is "follow the moves not the talk".

Roughly a third of the Socialist Alliance conference voted for the "workers' party" resolution and for a SA paper (a similar proportion, though not exactly identical, as voted at the Euro conference for an independent working class "active boycott" on the euro vote). Many stayed for the post-conference fringe meeting, wanting to take the first steps towards a workers' party (as yet undefined). An opportunity was missed-criminally.

But the SWP handed us a reprieve. By their high-handed attitude in Birmingham, their contempt for the Socialist Alliance in pursuing secret negotiations (so far fruitless) with the mosques and the CPB, they have alienated further sections of the SA, who had voted with them at the conference. It is not only possible, but urgent, to organise these forces, on explicitly working class socialist politics and a commitment to work democratically. On their own, these pitifully small forces do not form the basis of a workers party of the first type. But they are already (or can be) persuaded of the need of a such a party, organically rooted in the class. They can be a springboard to take that call into the labour movement, to begin the debate to articulate what are the necessary class politics to challenge the Blairite domination of the movement. And in that task, a paper would be an asset to unite these forces.

Gerry Byrne

Editorial reply:

Gerry has started here a discussion about the different conceptions of "workers' party" that are current on the left. That is an urgent and necessary discussion and we hope other comrades will contribute.

However the casual reader may not "get" some of the references in Gerry's article, specifically the paragraph which starts "And in practice? 'The Fake Left Continues to Rot'...". Gerry is refering to different articles, which had different purposes. She does this to imply that we are at least inconsistent on the issue of left unity. Her evidence for this is presented but not commented on, in the style of somebody who wants to get something off her chest, who is throwing out ideas to see what the reaction will be - rather than someone who has analysed all the issues involved.

"The fake left continues to rot", is the title of an editorial (Solidarity 3/26) in which we analyse and criticise the left's "solidarity" with George Galloway. Gerry implies the headline is deliberately inflammatory and, again by implication, not justified.

The headline is in fact an echo of an older article, "The old left continues to rot", published nine years ago in Socialist Organiser (Solidarity's forerunner). The "fake left" article deals with the same issues and presents the same analysis of Galloway. Except, over the course of nine years, the ideological decay of the left in general, but the SWP in particular - which accounts for the solidarising with an apologist for a fascist dictator - has continued and become more accute.

The characterisation "fake" is not inflammatory in the sense of "too rude" in my view, but if it were, that would be entirely secondary, as long as the headline is accurate. The notion of "fake left" is based on the substantive point made in the article: "the left defines itself negatively, by what it is against." That is not a rational or Marxist method. It should have no place on the left. It lead the left to blind itself to the truth - in this case the facts about Galloway. Does Gerry agree or disagree with that analysis? If you agree then you have to conclude that the label "fake" is accurate and fair comment.

Why use this phrase, to describe this reality. Because it "tells it like it is", on the assumption that doing that, rather than mumbling apologetically, or finding some more palatable formula, ought to make people stop and think.

Or does Gerry think, "It is bad that the left solidarise with Galloway but it's not such a big deal"? Again, I'm with Trotsky on this one too i.e., to paraphrase "tell the truth in small things". Why? Because beneath the smaller details of political difference there are sometimes bigger issues. That is certainly true on the issue of Galloway. The bigger issues are popular fronts, fake anti-imperialism...

What does all this tell us about left unity? Clearly the concept and practice of "left unity" is difficult. But do we do any favours to the cause of left unity by papering over differences? No. And have we stopped aiming for left unity? No.

Gerry's other references - "crazies... morons" originate in a small item in this paper, "Crazies of the World Unite!", a debunk of some articles in the CPGB's Weekly Worker. "Crazies of the World Unite!" was as I later said "an attempt to draw together some typical extrapolations of Ian Donovan's unfiltered extrapolations about the politics of the AWL." (See Solidarity 3/32). These included the charge that the AWL doesn't like Arabs very much. Subsequently Donovan responed by implying I didn't write my own articles and much other nonsense besides. I replied with a tiny rude letter expressing which among other things called him a moron. People with better social skills might conclude that being called a moron after the kind of nonsense Donovan has written is to be let off lightly... The letter was to be my last word on the subject…

Our approach to left unity right now is what it has always been: a combination of two things. To be constructive - working out the best way to keep the oppositional forces of the Socialist Alliance intact is one of our immediate goals, a goal we share with many on the left.

But we also want to explain. We need to say exactly what went wrong with the SA, why the turn in the SA is to the politics of the popular front. To fail to explain the truth - in matters small and large - is to silence ourselves in areas that will be crucial for the health of renewed workers' organisation: basic issues of Marxist theory.

Underlying this discussion is a fact of life on the left: over the course of the last, perhaps twenty years, there has been a great deterioration of Marxist theorectical knowledge, although the process of decay has been going on longer than that. Until relatively recently, Gerry had been out of revolutionary politics for some years. She has not lived and breathed the changes. That might give her a useful perspective and insight, but only if she takes the time to come to terms with the reality of the left. She should do that before she so schematically characterise our approach to it.

Cathy Nugent

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