Friday, April 20, 2007

The Radical Left in Western Europe

This is a bit of a longer piece than we usually publish on this blog, but is an extremely interesting article by Murray Smith:

The Radical Left in Western Europe
Murray Smith

For some years now it has been clear that we are witnessing the appearance on a European, or at least West European, scale, of a series of new political formations on the left. The process is uneven from two points of view. In the first place, between countries: some countries have new political formations at various degrees of development, others have hardly moved, and there have been some false starts. But the process which began in the early 90s and accelerated around the turn of the century has further developed in the last couple of years. The unevenness is also political: some of the new parties are much more radical and explicitly anti-capitalist than others. That only underlines that we are dealing with real political movements, which do not conform to pre-arranged schemas. But it is clear that we are looking at a tendency towards the appearance of a new radical Left on a European level. Over and above the different expressions of this tendency in different countries, the fundamental causes producing new political forces are the same.

How can we define this “radical Left”? Why is it appearing now and not 20 or 25 years ago? And then, radical Left, anti-capitalist Left, anti-liberal Left, revolutionary Left, is it all the same thing? One of the debates in France, which may seem somewhat esoteric from the exterior, but is not without interest, is about whether there is one Left, or two or three or more. There are of course, several Lefts. There are organisations and currents which are explicitly revolutionary, there are parties and other forces which are more or less clearly anti-capitalist. There is a traditional social-democratic Left, not anti-capitalist but anti-liberal and which really believes in reforms. And there is obviously the social-liberal “Left”. The frontiers between these different Lefts are obviously not impermeable, people move in one direction or another. That is actually the only level on which it makes sense to speak of a single Left.

Nevertheless, there seem to me to be two main dividing lines. The first is between currents which are anti-capitalist - that is to say that they are clear that there is no lasting way out of the ravages of neo-liberal capitalism without breaking from capitalism as a system – and those which are not. The latter extend, of course, from currents that merely wish to soften the effects of neo-liberal policies to those who consistently oppose neo-liberal policies, without being convinced that there is an alternative to capitalism, or at least not in the immediate future. Within the anti-capitalist Left there is a difference between those who call themselves revolutionary and those who do not. I will explain later why I think that this difference is less decisive in practice than many people think.

When it comes down to practice, there is a second and much more immediate dividing line. It is between, on the one hand, the Left which has, pardon the play on words, left the left. That is to say, the parties which still claim to be on the left and are still seen as such but which consistently apply neo-liberal policies – the British Labour Party, the German SPD, the French Socialist Party and their co-thinkers in other countries. And there is the Left that refuses the neo-liberal consensus, and which goes all the way from revolutionaries to honest reformists who think it is possible to go back to a more humane Welfare State type of capitalism without challenging the foundations of the system, that is, it encompasses both anti-capitalists and anti-liberals, and shades between the two. It is from this common refusal, this resistance which can be expressed both electorally and on the streets, that we have to start in order to regroup forces to build parties that will challenge capitalism. That does not resolve all the problems, but it creates a framework where they can be resolved in the course of action.

Over the last couple of years we have seen electoral advances by parties of the radical left in a number of countries - from Denmark to Portugal to Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany. But the most striking events on the electoral level took place in two of the most important countries in Europe. On May 29th, 2005, voters in France rejected the projected European constitution, which aimed to set neo-liberal policies in stone. In fact, although the actual victory took place in the polling booths, it was above all the consequence of an energetic and broad campaign for a “No from the left”, a mass political campaign over more than six months. The French “No” was followed a few days later by the Dutch, after a campaign in which the radical Left also played an important role. On September 18th, the new Left Party alliance between the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG) and the PDS in Germany won 8.7 per cent of the vote and 53 deputies, breaking half a century of the monopoly of political representation of the working class in the former West Germany by the SPD. These results caused considerable worry for the European ruling classes, and so they should have: in different ways, the two votes were the expression of a significant current within the working class that rejected neo-liberalism. They were correctly perceived as potential obstacles to the “reforms” or rather counter-reforms, that the ruling class considers so necessary.

What worried our rulers is that both of these events were political. Because, contrary to the ultra-left rhetoric that still marks some of the revolutionary Left, what worries the enemy is not only, or even especially, resistance on a social level. They are used to strikes and demonstrations in protest at this or that measure. Except in exceptional cases they carry on regardless. We occasionally win battles, up to now they have been winning the war. We could look at each country and examine the record of social movements, and see how many of them have actually stopped measures.

France is no doubt the exception that proves the rule. The level of social resistance has probably been the highest in Europe. But it has at most slowed down the neo-liberal agenda, it has not stopped it. Privatisation and counter-reforms of pensions, health insurance and so on have advanced inexorably. The exceptions are few, such as the defeat of the projected CIP (a reduced minimum wage for young people) in 1994 - even the strike movement of November-December 1995 only won a partial victory. And of course at the beginning of 2006 there was the victory over the CPE - a formidable victory for the mass movement, but which should not hide the fact that the CPE was only one element in an arsenal of measures designed to dismantle job protection. Of course, if there was a new May 1968 …but that is unlikely and can certainly not be counted on as a basis for political perspectives. And it is often forgotten that in 1968 there was no credible alternative on the left.

Of course there is no question of denying the importance of social movements. Indeed, the more the new formations win elected positions, the more important it is for them to keep the centre of gravity of their activity outside Parliament. But we need parties which combine the two forms of struggle. Because without politics the social movements run out of steam. That is why it is perfectly sterile for some far-left currents to launch incessant appeals to workers to ‘extend and strengthen the struggle’, etc., without offering them any political perspective. When there is a strong social movement, we should seek to offer it a political perspective. When faced with currents who seek to reduce politics to the institutional framework, we should stress the importance of social mobilisation. We have to walk on both feet. Big social movements can have repercussions on the electoral level, even when they are defeated. French voters took revenge for the defeat of the 2003 strike movement at the polls in 2004. But the absence of political perspectives will leave even victorious social movements without perspectives. In spite of the victories over the European Constitution and the CPE, we are faced with a bleak scenario for the presidential election, with Sarkozy conducting an aggressively right-wing campaign, while Royal is arguably the most right-wing Socialist candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic. Rather like a French version of Thatcher versus Blair. And no credible alternative on the left.

Whether Sarkozy or Royal, or conceivably the centrist candidate Bayrou, wins, there will be a fresh wave of neo-liberal attacks. In this situation, the forces to the left of the SP are providing the sorry spectacle of three candidates issued from the united campaign against the European Constitution, plus the inevitable candidacy of Arlette Laguiller of LO. The French radical Left has lost what is arguably its best chance so far to lay the foundations of a new political force. Whatever the outcome of the elections, and however the various candidates to the left of the Socialist party fare, we have not yet seen all the repercussions of this failure.

Of course, the necessary rebuilding of the workers’ movement cannot be reduced to building new parties. A key factor, and very often the key factor, in the defeat of social mobilisations, is the unwillingness of union leaderships to fully mobilise, either because they basically share the neo-liberal politics of the social-democratic parties or because they are limited to a vision of simply trying to soften the blows. It is also necessary to rebuild the unions on a class struggle basis, articulated with new social movements, associations in the neighbourhoods, etc. But that cannot be seen in isolation from the building of a political alternative. Militants who are armed with a political perspective will be more effective on the social level and parties with roots in the workplaces and social movements will be better able to resist the pressures of institutionalisation.

The first formations of the new Left arose around 1990. As far back as 1989, several formations came together to form the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark. A couple of years later the PRC, which was of course a much more substantial organisation, emerged from a split in the Italian Communist Party. At the height of the tsunami of capitalist triumphalism and the ‘death of socialism’, these organisations represented points of resistance. But it was towards the end of the decade that the radical Left developed further. In fact, it was at the European elections in 1999 and in a series of national elections around the same time that the new Left really became visible in a series of countries – in Scotland, Portugal, the Netherlands and elsewhere. The result of the LCR-LO campaign in France was seen as part of this process, though it was in fact a somewhat different phenomenon, a bloc between two far-left organisations. Since then, parties and alliances of the radical Left have become serious forces in the national political life of several countries.

This brings us back to the question of where the fundamental dividing line lies. Some people think that the fundamental dividing line, today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, is between revolutionaries and reformists. Well, yes, in the last analysis…But the essence of Leninism is the concrete analysis of a concrete situation. And concretely in Europe today we are not in a revolutionary situation but in a defensive struggle against the neo-liberal offensive with its concomitant militarist and repressive aspects. And in a situation where the bulk of the political apparatuses apply or accompany this offensive, accompanied by an ideological offensive whose aim is to demonstrate not only that capitalism is the horizon beyond which we cannot go, but also that neo-liberal policies are the only ones that are possible within that capitalism.

It is in this concrete situation that the task of rebuilding the workers’ movement is posed. And the essential task is to bring together the forces which refuse the neo-liberal agenda. Some of the new parties are clearly anti-capitalist, not revolutionary in the traditional (far-left) definition, but they are parties that are rooted in today’s struggles and have a perspective that goes beyond capitalism, towards socialism. Examples are the SSP and the Portuguese Left Bloc. But there are other parties which are less clear politically but whose creation represents a step forward and in which revolutionary socialists should intervene to try and take them forward. An example is the new Left Party in Germany, which is anti-liberal but far from clearly anti-capitalist and in which coexist radically different approaches to the question of governing with the SPD. The exact nature of these new parties, their degree of political clarity, depends on a number of factors – the history and traditions of the workers movement in their country, the level of class struggle and the political landscape, the nature of the political forces involved. But they are where we have to start from.

What is on the agenda in the short and medium term, is not the socialist revolution, but the rebuilding of a political representation of workers starting from responses to the problems with which they are confronted. Since neo-liberalism is the form of really existing capitalism, the need to combat neo-liberalism can be the starting-point for new parties So it can be a question of building parties in defence of public services, against privatizations, war, etc. Nevertheless, since it is impossible to seriously combat neo-liberalism without taking measures that are anti-capitalist, the parties need to become clearly anti-capitalist. We can put it this way: opposition to neo-liberalism can be the basis for action, for alliances and fronts and even for new parties - it depends on the concrete situation. But to actually try and apply an anti-liberal policy that would stop short of attacking the bases of capitalism would be a dead-end. It makes no sense to argue that it is possible to return to a more humane, social capitalism. Even worse would be an alliance with social liberals with the idea of influencing them to the left. The French Communist Party demonstrated the futility of such a perspective in 1997-2002, which has not stopped the PRC going into government with Prodi in Italy. Parties which are not clear on anti-capitalism and class independence may be necessary stages in some countries. But they will remain unstable as long as these questions are not clarified.

Today one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the ruling class is of course the refrain that Margaret Thatcher pioneered :“There is no alternative”. This should not be under-estimated when it comes from a chorus encompassing the entire political establishment, including the social-democratic leaderships, and the media. It can lead to resignation, to the idea that all that can be done is to attenuate the course of things but not to reverse it. Even when victorious, social resistance remains on the defensive. Political opposition involves proposing an alternative. It is not just a question of saying “we don’t like what is happening to us” but of saying that something else is possible. One cannot build parties in a durable way only on the basis of refusal, of the negative. And though we can start by saying “another world/Europe is possible” we have to give it a content. It is necessary to propose the perspective of an alternative to capitalism, a perspective of socialism, of course by arguing for it and differentiating it both from the tragedy of Stalinism and the debacle of social democracy.

This brings us to the question of what kinds of party have arisen at different stages in the history of the workers’ movement. It is a commonplace to say that the type of organisation or party that is needed is not always the same, that there is no ahistorical model independent of time and space. Most people would agree with that: nevertheless large sections of the far left have over a period of decades sought to mechanically reproduce the model of the Bolshevik Party, often with quite miniscule groups and in very different circumstances.

It is possible and in my opinion correct to see a progression from the First to the Second to the Third International. There is a progression from fairly elementary forms of working-class organisation – trade unions, political societies, etc. – to mass workers’ parties. And then with the split in international socialism during and following the First World War, to communist parties, which took on a mass character in a series of countries. That is where the progression stops. The crystallised reformist degeneration of the social-democratic parties and the victory of Stalinism posed the question of the creation of new mass parties. The question was posed but not answered. The unfavourable conditions of the 1930s did not permit it and when the Fourth International was founded it brought together only small groups. The unfolding and outcome of the Second World War and the long post-war boom created, in a different way, equally unfavourable conditions.

The Trotskyist movement lived for decades on the perspective of a sort of return to the golden age, where the famous ‘whole layers’ of the working class would break from the treacherous leaderships and converge with the revolutionary nucleus to create mass revolutionary parties. This coexisted or conflicted with periodic illusions (after 1945, after 1968) in the possibility for groups of a few hundred or at best a few thousand to grow in a linear fashion into mass parties. And to a variety of theories as to the necessary or possible mediation via “centrist” parties en route. But the breakthrough never came, neither in the 1930s, nor after 1945, nor after 1968. History had taken a fork, gone backwards and sideways. The much utilised term of “detour” is unsatisfactory. It implies that there is a main road and anything that deviates from it is, well, a detour. But there is of course no predestined high road to socialism. Any illusions on that score should have been dispelled by the experience of the last twenty years. When the much-awaited divorce between the masses and the leaderships began to take place, it was in a way that no one had expected.

To go back to our starting-point, why have forces of the radical Left emerged over the last 10-15 years? And why in Europe – or at least part of Europe? Let us make one thing clear in passing. The recomposition of the workers’ movement and of the Left is not a purely European phenomenon, far from it. It is occurring on a world scale – under the impact of globalisation and the collapse of the Stalinist states and their effects on a whole series of political currents – reformist, nationalist, populist, Stalinist, etc. But this recomposition does not occur in the same way in every part of the world – in Latin America, Asia, Africa or Europe- and does not produce the same kind of parties. It is not a question of saying that what happens in Western Europe is more important or more interesting than elsewhere. You only need to look at Latin America today to dispel any such idea. But Western Europe is important, and above all it is where we are. And it produces parties that are linked to the specific histories of our societies.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new Left in Europe because of the evolution of the old Left faced with capitalism’s turn to neo-liberal globalisation and with the upheavals in international relations. After 1945, in the framework of what can be called a social compromise or the post-war consensus, there were established in a series of countries in Western Europe, models of the social state or Welfare State. Some were more advanced than others. But the overall result was to create economies with significant nationalised sectors, state intervention in the economy, free or almost free access to health and education, unemployment and sick pay, state pensions, virtually full employment and rising real wages. It was a compromise, not exactly between the working class and the bourgeoisie, but between the political and trade union bureaucracies of the workers’ movement and the bourgeoisie. But this compromise brought real benefits to the working class. It was not strictly speaking a West European phenomenon, but also concerned other advanced capitalist countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

So this model was proper to most of the advanced capitalist countries, to different degrees, but with a common base, and it was possible because of their wealth and the long period of capitalist expansion. The model was put into practice by governments of the Right as well as the Left, proof that it was a general orientation of the ruling classes. In fact, as has often been the case with reforms, the new model was a product both of struggle from below and concessions from above. However, the working class considered its own organisations as the surest guarantees of keeping what had been won and extending the gains. So there was a strengthening of unions and parties. The major exception was of course the United States, where concessions were certainly made, but where there was not a European-style Welfare State, nor indeed a mass workers’ party.

What was done after 1945 lasted as long as the unprecedented period of capitalist expansion, until the crisis of 1973-74. This economic and social stability formed the basis for political stability in the workers’ movement. Revolutionaries were exiled to the fringes, a very small minority. Capitalism’s Indian summer was also the golden age of reformism. The traditional parties kept the support of the working class because they were able to deliver. Reformist consciousness is not “natural” for workers. Reformism arose first of all in Britain, then in the other imperialist countries towards the end of the 19th century, for precise reasons which there is not space to go into here. Its hold was severely shaken in the period 1914-45, when there were a whole series of revolutions and revolutionary and pre-revolutionary crises in Europe. But after 1945 its hold became so solid that it survived even the wave of class struggle in several key countries in the period 1968-75. Workers frequently engaged in struggle and sometimes showed revolutionary aspirations, but continued to follow non-revolutionary parties, which while blocking revolutions (very effectively in 1968-75 in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal) continued to defend their gains. This placed objectives limits on the growth of the revolutionary Left. It did grow qualitatively after 1968, first of all from youth and then from a layer of workers. But it never gained a mass base, despite the variety of tactics employed. It is no doubt clearer today than it was then that this was for essentially objective reasons.

The crisis of the 1970s brought about a change in the orientation of big capital. The relative social stability brought about by the post-war consensus became too expensive. Starting with the attacks of Reagan and Thatcher and leading on to the generalised offensive of the last 20 years in the framework of the European Union, the whole of the post-war model began to be dismantled, not of course without resistance and not entirely, so far at any rate. What concerns us here is the role played by the traditional parties of the working class. Without exception , the social-democratic parties joined in the neo-liberal offensive. They did not just “accompany” it, they applied the policies, often with zeal. It is difficult to find a fundamental difference between Aznar and Gonzalez, Major and Blair, Jospin and Juppé. Sometimes, like Schröder in Germany, the social-democrats were even more courageous than the Right in defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie.

So the objective bases for detaching the masses from the reformist apparatuses began to exist. But since real life is always richer than the best theoretical projections, it was not because the masses had swung leftward and broken with the reformists, but because the reformists had swung to the right, abandoning the workers. So at first, and still to a large extent today, a certain space has been created which has not immediately been occupied. As John Rees of the British SWP has written, “millions of workers feel that their traditional home has been taken away from them and they are not sure about the alternative”. The “traditional home” is of course the Labour Party in Britain, but what is said goes equally for other countries.

What could occupy the space thus liberated? Here, vocabulary has its importance: it is a question of occupying a space, which demands political initiative, not just filling a vacuum, an automatic process. One reaction, very evident in France for a period, was to flee politics and fall back on social movements and trade union action. But experience only underlined the necessity of politics. So what political forces could fill this space? Let us look at the possibilities. First of all, left splits from social democracy. Well, overall, what is striking has been the absence or extreme weakness of structured left oppositions in the social democratic parties in reaction to their social-liberal evolution. There are at least two exceptions. First of all in the 1980s there was a real Left in the Labour Party, which had to be broken so that the party could again become a reliable instrument for the ruling class. That was done by Kinnock against a background of the defeats imposed by Thatcher. That was what made Blairism possible. A left split from Labour and the creation of a new party might have been possible in the 1980s. The only, late attempt, the launching of the SLP in 1995, had a real echo, ruined by Scargill’s sectarianism and Stalinism.

Secondly, in France, left currents have continued to exist in the Socialist Party. This is certainly not unconnected to the relatively high level of social resistance to neo-liberalism in that country. Some of these currents, in particular the PRS (“For a Social Republic”) current of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, demonstrated during the European referendum campaign their ability to act concretely on the ground against neo-liberalism. They can be potential components of the emergence of a new political force, if one emerges. But they are unlikely to take the initiative. Faced with the failure to make such a force emerge from the referendum campaign they have retreated, for the moment at least, into the SP.

The essential point is that nowhere has the space created by the social-liberalisation of social-democracy been simply occupied by left splits from these parties. It is important to be precise. There is a difference between organized currents of these parties (as in France) and individuals and small groups who remain in them or leave to go nowhere in particular, but who may be available for a new political force, for example in Germany and to a much lesser extent in England. It is certain that there are still honest militants in the social-democratic parties of Europe. From the moment that these parties adopt neo-liberal politics, they are faced with a choice. To join the new course. To withdraw from politics or fall back on trade unionism. To go elsewhere, but where? The communist parties are in crisis. The far left is often too marked by minority activism and an ideological approach to politics. So some choose to remain. But they do not in general constitute organised left currents. In Germany the WASG was created by trade unionists who were also members or ex-members of the SPD, but they did not emerge within the party as an organised current. Lafontaine joining helped make the new party a pole of attraction for disillusioned SPD supporters. But he did not, either, lead an organised current out of the party.

Then, there are the Communist Parties. Weakened already by the discredit of the Soviet model and by their national policies, they were hit head-on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. There has been a tendency on the far left to simply write them off as ineluctably doomed to disappearance or to become satellites of social-democracy. Fifteen years after the fall of the Wall and the disappearance of the USSR it seems that the process is longer and more complicated. These parties have undergone different evolutions. At the end of the Second World War, they were the majority parties of the working class in several countries. In the 1980s only the Italian CP was in this situation. The PCF had been reduced to a secondary role by the Socialist Party under Mitterrand, and in Greece, Portugal and Spain, in spite of the antifascist record of the CPs, social-democracy had emerged dominant after the fall of the dictatorships. It was thus parties already weakened or in crisis which were struck by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The smallest became really marginal and some have been on the verge of extinction. But those which had a mass character survived, and a thorough analysis of their evolution is needed. The majority of the Italian CP, principal workers’ party in a country where social democracy was weak, was transformed into the Left Democrats, a centre-left formation. It is the only case where the tendencies to social-democratization of the communist parties, which were (and still are) at work everywhere, went all the way. Elsewhere parties like the PCF and the Greek and Portuguese parties maintain a mass character. One cannot say that these parties defend in a consequent way the interests of the working class, but nor did they simply go over to neo-liberalism. The PCF took part in the social-liberal government of Jospin and was severely punished for it in the 2002 elections. But it came back by operating a turn to the left and a unitary tactic, which enabled it to play a central role in the European referendum campaign and to become an element that it was impossible to circumvent in the debates on how to follow up this victory. The Greek and Portuguese CPs combine outrageous sectarianism with an opportunism that is sometimes disconcerting, but they are not neo-liberal parties.

It has to be remembered that the CPs always had a more active and militant base than the SPs. Today the PCF has been marginalised electorally by the SP and is in competition on this terrain with the far left. But its influence on the ground is still significant and out of all proportion to its national electoral results. The essential point is that the communist parties with mass influence did not collapse or simply join the social democracy. We can work on the hypothesis that they will not simply disappear, not even automatically with the appearance of a new radical Left force. Depending on the situation, they will form part of it, or they will split and part of them will do so, or else they will maintain a sectarian stance and are likely to be progressively marginalized. But nowhere where these parties represent a force will we build new parties without engaging with them and their militants.

Let us come back to the nature of the distance between the social-democratic parties and their traditional social base. We have said that initially it was not the masses who moved but the parties, leaving their social base stranded. So in the beginning the refusal of neo-liberalism developed without political representation. It was expressed by the advanced layers through social resistance, sometimes by the appearance of new social movements, and by a rejection or avoidance of politics. This rejection was expressed at a mass level, by the rise of abstentionism in working class areas, and by many other workers simply voting for social democracy as a lesser evil. It was only later and gradually that the absence of a political alternative started to be felt. For those who want to propose a political alternative to neo-liberalism, it is a question of going to find people where they are, i.e. starting from their refusal of neo-liberalism, to offering them a political perspective. Apart from forces coming from social democracy and the CPs, there are other forces who will be part of new parties - ecologists, trade unionists, global justice campaigners, etc., and there are also the currents of the far Left.

The "traditional" groups of the far left cannot in themselves constitute an alternative, for a number of reasons. The tens and hundreds of thousands of people who are in search of a political alternative will not be won directly to a revolutionary programme. Not to mention the fact that many far-left groups maintain ways of functioning that are antipathetic to militants from other traditions and to ordinary workers. They therefore have to work with other and anti-capitalist and anti-liberal forces to build coalitions, fronts, parties. Some revolutionaries would argue that it is impossible to unite reformists and revolutionaries in one party and that there are ‘strategic differences’. But what actually divides those who define themselves as revolutionaries from other socialists? Two things. In the first place they understand that you can not simply take the machinery of the capitalist state and use it for the transition to socialism – though many left reformists also understand that, more or less clearly. Secondly, the Trotskyist groups especially have a solid theoretical heritage, which applied in a non-dogmatic way is still largely relevant. Neither of those things prevent them working in parties with others who do not share those characteristics. It is perfectly possible, and it can be verified in practice, for many militants who do not define themselves as revolutionary and are not members of any group to have a class struggle approach which often extends, for example, to an understanding that it is wrong to enter social-liberal governments.

The term “strategic differences” between reformists and revolutionaries could imply that both revolutionaries and reformists have a strategy. That is very much open to question. Which reformists are we talking about? If it is the social-liberals, they have no strategy for the transition to socialism, they share the strategy of the capitalists, to which at best they give a social veneer. If it is the anti-liberals, I think it is very questionable that the French CP for example has a strategy. Oscillating between mobilising against neo-liberal policies and collaborating with the SP is hardly a strategy. As for revolutionaries, clarity about the nature of the bourgeois state, an understanding of the need for extra-parliamentary mobilisations, self-organisation and their theoretical heritage does not amount to a strategy. No revolutionary organisation in Western Europe has one, and for a very good reason. We are operating in advanced capitalist countries with a long tradition of bourgeois democracy, and no socialist revolution has ever taken place in such a country. For one to succeed it is reasonable to suppose that a mass party will have to be built and that that party will have to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary work and solve a series of tactical problems in the course of experience, problems which have only begun to be posed in some cases.

The debate that is beginning in the LCR, in the pages of Critique Communiste and elsewhere, underlines this. It raises many questions and it can be fruitful. But the result will not be that the LCR will have a strategy to take us from now to the socialist revolution. Hopefully it will have a better idea of the kind of party and the kind of tactics that will have to be combined to help work out such a strategy with the aid of practice.

There is therefore no reason why revolutionary Marxists cannot work with other militants in a party that is fighting really existing capitalism and trying to outline a socialist alternative to resolve these problems together. Especially since we are in a phase of resisting a capitalist offensive and fighting for reforms. Reformism and revolutionary politics may be antinomic, but reform and revolution are not, they are, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out a long time ago and as Claudio Katz has more recently underlined, two phases of the class struggle.

Existing revolutionary organisations can make a decisive contribution to the building of new parties, but there is no guarantee that they will. Experience has shown both examples of where the far left has made the key contribution, or an important one, to building new parties (Scotland, Portugal, Denmark), others where it has consistently failed to do so (France…) and the case of England which is between the two. The problem is that in order to make such a contribution these organisations have to change in a number of ways. They have to leave behind a mentality that was formed when they were beleaguered revolutionary minorities faced with the bureaucratic apparatuses, seeing themselves as the nucleus of future mass parties, with the idea that everyone had to be won to their politics. This approach was always flawed; it is quite unadapted to a period when it is a question of replacing these parties, of building new mass parties with other forces on a basis of equality, and of revolutionaries taking account of the fact that they might actually learn something from these other forces. There is also a fundamental question which concerns the larger revolutionary organisations. If they are going to contribute to building new parties they will have to cease to exist as independent entities and become currents within them. That is a big step when you have built a sizeable organisation and an apparatus (press, printshop, premises, etc.) and there is a certain conservatism, a certain reticence to take risks. Which is entirely understandable but plays a negative role.

In the current state of affairs, the most advanced parties of the radical left in Europe are probably the SSP in Scotland, the Portuguese Left Bloc and the Danish Red-Green Alliance. These parties are clearly anti-capitalist, for socialism. They are parties which have succeeded in rooting themselves in the social and political combats of their countries by projecting an image and a vision of socialism that breaks from Stalinism and social democracy. And they have succeeded in building parties which if they are not yet mass parties, have a mass audience, and in winning elected positions in parliaments and local councils. In Scotland and Portugal the initiative for new parties was taken by revolutionary Marxist organizations - SML in Scotland, the UDP and the PSR in Portugal - which had first of all the will and then enough weight to play this role and to attract other components (coming from the CP in Portugal, of various origins in Scotland) which could not have taken the initiative alone and whose forces would undoubtedly otherwise have dispersed. These organisations are quite explicitly anti-capitalist and they have the potential to grow, which does not exclude future regroupments. But there are other cases where the arc of forces is wider and the politics less defined in an anti-capitalist sense. That is most clearly the case in Germany. If these parties involve broad forces, it may be that not just revolutionaries but consistent anti-capitalists will be in a minority and there will be sharp battles to be fought.

It is not a question here of making an exhaustive list of the whole European radical left, but of looking at some specific cases. We have said that the most advanced cases were those where the revolutionary Marxists had played a leading role. These are not models to be slavishly followed independently of national circumstances, they are examples of successful initiatives. There obviously exist other cases, other types of parties, failures, half-successes. Let us look at some of them.

In England, the building of a force of the radical left has known failures and half-successes - the failure of the SLP, the experience of the Socialist Alliance which did not fulfil all its potential. The creation of Respect marked a new stage. Respect is the product of the antiwar movement, not in the sense that it involves all the forces of this movement, but in the sense that the forces which make it up started to work together in this movement. If the principal political force is the SWP (the section of the FI is also present) the element which makes Respect qualitatively different from the Socialist Alliance is the involvement e of important forces coming from the Muslim population. That has led to some criticism in England and much on the French Left, the balance sheet of whose relationship with the Muslim population hardly authorizes it to give anyone lessons. It is true that most of the areas where Respect obtained its best results have important Muslim populations, which were strongly committed to the antiwar movement. However it is clear that the programme of Respect is not addressed only to Muslims, and does not speak only about the war but also about social questions (which also concern Muslims...) Respect’s references to socialism are more than vague (this appears now to be intentional on the part of the SWP) but it is certainly clearly opposed to really existing neo-liberal capitalism, which is a good starting point.

The real problems lie elsewhere. It appears that the policy of the SWP is to keep Respect as a loose coalition, in spite of declarations like that of John Rees at the end of the "Marxism 2005" event, "Respect must become a mass party of the working class”. The result is that its programme has not evolved much and its internal democracy leaves a lot to be desired. Respect does not seem to be growing and in particular is not attracting serious trade union support. It needs to become a real party with a programme and democratic structures, with respect for pluralism. The criticisms made by the Respect Party Platform and of Socialist Resistance in this respect are correct.

The Party of Communist Refoundation in Italy is a party of tens of thousands of members, with an important group of deputies. It remains strongly marked by its origins in the PCI, but was able to integrate important forces coming from the far left, as well as many new members and to link up with the global justice movement. Its imminent degeneration was often announced by those who specialize in this kind of prediction. But until 2004 its trajectory was overall towards the left and a break, not complete but real, with Stalinist culture. However it has subsequently evolved rightwards and joined the centre-left government of Romano Prodi. This has produced strong tensions and a crisis in the party, which places big responsibilities on its left wing.

A particular case is that of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands. As its name does not necessarily suggest, it is a formation of the radical Left. It was originally a Maoist group which made the decision the 1980s to build a broad socialist party. It played a leading role in the victory of the "No" in the referendum over the European Constitution. Today the SP claims over 50,000 members. It has made big gains in local and national elections over the last year and now has 25 deputies in a Parliament of 150. Such an evolution of the relationship of forces starts to pose, without solving it, the problem of going from a radical opposition to neo-liberalism to the need to represent an alternative to it. The SP’s choice is to proclaim its readiness to govern, preferably in a coalition with the social democrats, possibly even with the Christian Democrats, though not on any terms. It has therefore remained outside the new Social Democrat-Christian Democrat coalition government. But whatever criticisms cane be made of the SP, its success underlines one thing. When you are seriously challenging the social democrats as the first party of the Left (which is the case), it is quite impossible to avoid the question of governmental participation, and you have to say clearly why you will not go into government and on what conditions you would.

Important developments are now taking place in a key country, Germany. Since the unification of the country, the PDS has incarnated the resistance of a large part of the population of the ex-GDR to the consequences of the restoration of capitalism. This party has many defects - it takes part in regional coalition governments with the SPD, its cadres remains essentially those of the old single party, the SED. It however continues to have an important base of support in the ex-GDR. But its particular history means that the PDS never penetrated in the West, wherein lies the importance of the emergence of the WASG: the alliance won 8.7 per cent of the vote and 53 deputies at the federal elections September 2005. The definitive fusion of the WASG and the PDS appears to be on course for June. It is by no means an anti-capitalist force , but clearly anti-liberal. And just as the SSP and the Left Bloc are advanced examples, the forces which launched the new party also determine its political content, but in the direction of limiting it to a left Keynesian reformism. However, the essential thing is that something is moving moves in what was before a political desert and that this party has a real echo among workers. The forces of the far left in Germany which take part in it are certainly right to do so.

It is certainly in France that the contradiction between the high level of social resistance - but also political resistance, as was shown in the referendum campaign - to neo-liberalism and the absence of a broad anti-capitalist force is the most obvious. The "No" campaign was carried by a broad coalition, with a movement of hundreds of unitary collectives involving up to 15.000 people, which even took on new life and expanded in the run-up to the 2007 elections, adopting programmatic documents and aiming to present candidates in the presidential and legislative elections. But first the LCR withdrew to run its own candidate and then the CP made a clumsy attempt to have its general secretary adopted as presidential candidate, which the movement refused. This led to sharp conflicts and to situations of crisis in both the LCR and the CP, and seriously dislocated the movement. The attempt to overcome this situation through the candidacy of Jose Bove is laudable but perhaps too partial and too late. However, the movement for unity of the anti-liberal Left is not dead and will re-emerge in the coming period. And whatever the results of their candidates, the conflict in the LCR and CP is not over either. There is no doubt that the LCR carries part of the responsibility for this situation. In principle, it is committed to the perspective of building a new anti-capitalist force. However , even before the current elections, it has never succeeded, not only in concretising this perspective, but in taking an initiative that is even a little bit serious. The reasons advanced for this, variously the objective situation and political obstacles, are very much open to question.

There exists a coordination of anti-capitalist parties, the European Anti-Capitalist Left (EACL), whose coordinating group consists of the SSP, the Left Bloc, the RGA and the LCR. There is also the European Left Party (ELP), which brings together some of the former (and some who still are) CPs and left reformist parties, who are not necessarily very radical, not neo-liberal but not really independent of social democracy. But the borders between the two international groupings are not watertight. The PRC and the Greek coalition Synaspismos form part of the ELP but have sometimes attended, as observers, the meetings of the EACL. The Left Bloc is also now a member of the ELP, as is Respect. Though it is certainly the EACL which it is necessary to build, it is also necessary to know to maintain a flexible relationship with the components of the ELP. And there is now an initiative from the Dutch SP, which is not affiliated to either the EACL or the ELP, to convene an international meeting this summer.

What is called the radical Left thus covers very different realities. We can define it as consisting of all the forces and all the currents which refuse neo-liberalism. In it there are parties that are explicitly anti-capitalist, but there is not always a clear line of demarcation between anti-capitalist and anti-liberal. Between having rather general anti-capitalist and socialist references and integrating the anti-capitalist dimension into the everyday life of the parties there can be some distance and even a range of situations.
The final goal is not to build broad parties for the sake of it, but to build parties comprising significant forces which in the long term, undoubtedly after many differentiations and conflicts, will be able to lead processes of socialist transformation, therefore to become revolutionary parties. But this evolution cannot be imposed against the rhythm of development of the class struggle and of the evolution of political consciousness. It is a question of advancing towards such parties by working out a political strategy through many social and political battles. The role of revolutionary Marxists is to take things forward in this direction, to build these parties while making their contribution in the fields of programme and practice. At the beginning it seemed that the task was simply to bring together forces and build anti-capitalist parties. But reality has shown that in some cases, Germany certainly, France if the process restarts, it will be les sharply defined than that to start with. That is worth living with if a real political force can be built. There is a French saying, “the best is the enemy of better” i.e. if you try for the maximum you will miss the chance of a real step forward of the movement, which as Engels said, is worth ten programmes. Many debates, and even sharp battles, can be conducted within a common framework.

How revolutionary Marxists intervene in these parties will depend to a large extent on the concrete context in which they have to act. The intervention of a revolutionary Marxist current will not be the same in the SSP or the Left Bloc or the RGA as in Rifondazione, where it is a question of combating an erroneous orientation. It will be different again in the new party in Germany. But it is in these real processes, which begin to touch the mass of workers and to make things change, that revolutionaries must engage today.

Murray Smith



Anonymous said...

It's good to see Smith acknowledging that "the best is enemy of the good"; shame this hasn't filtered through to his extraordinarily ungenerous and purist judgments on Rifondazione. Refusing to join Prodi's coalition before the 2006 election would simply have given the election to Berlusconi - an unforgivable blunder.

Korakious said...

What's the original source of this article?

AN said...

I agree with what you are saying about Rifandazione Phil.

My friends in PRC (ex PCI) were very much in favout of joining L'unione coalition to keep Bulsesque-oni out.

However, I think PRC should have presented a minimum set of conditions to their participation in the coalition and been prepared to resign.

This for example is what Lafontaine is asking of the PDS in Berlin's Red-Red coalition with the SPD, that they should resign if the Sparkasse saving banks are privatised.

AN said...


In a sense this is the original source. Murray sent it to me and some others privately, and I haven't seen in published elsewhere.

I think what is most useful about his appraisals, are:

i) the discussion of reform and revolution, and

ii) the discussion of the social democratic parties

It is also useful to see how the "offical" communist parties have palyed different roles in different countries. I think the CPB could play a more constructive role that in it does in Britain, although Ii am generally sympathetic to a lot of its positions.

AN said...

I would also say (as I have before) that Murray is too generous in his assessment of Respect.

John Mullen said...

Murray wrote an article last year in French, for our mag "Socialisme International",
to be nice to us and at my request. The article here on the blog is a very much expanded and updated version of that.
John Mullen

Korakious said...

I agree with all your points An.

As for Rifondazione, while joining a bourgeois coalition is usually the death knell for any radical left party, I think that if they had not done so at that point, they would have been completely discredited in the eyes of the Italian working class.

I don't however see where the Prodi coalition can lead.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Andy - the recent Afghanistan/Vicenza confrontation could have gone differently if Rifondazione collectively had laid down their minimum conditions well in advance.

I'm not sure the article was that gentle to RESPECT - it endorsed Socialist Resistance's criticisms, after all.

I should also say that it's an excellent and thought-provoking piece, and should be a useful contribution to the debate about whether 'revolutionaries' can work with 'reformists' - or whether that distinction is an irrelevance.

John Mullen said...

I really know very little about Rifondazione. But I am not very convinced by the argument "we had to join the coalition or the working class would have felt betrayed". (This is what sections of the 4th INternational in Brazil said too.) Doesn't this suggest that there was a problem in what the revolutionaries were saying to workers in the years PRECEDING this sort of crisis. Surely it should make us think about what kind of independent uncompromising voice is necessary "in normal times" so that w e can maximize the number of workers who understand why we are not joining bourgeois governments. No short cuts, I guess

AN said...

I think the peculiarity of the Italian electoral system is that people could vote for both L'Unione coalition, and also within that for PRC representatives.

Given the overwhelming urge for progressive forces to get rid of Berlesconi - and indeed in the run up to the election Berlesconi making overtures to the facist right, then PRC could not be seen to be abstaining. (intereting by the way that in the first election ever where Italians abrad could vote, some 3% of Italians in Britain voted for Mussolini, much higher proportion that in Italy)

But those who voted for the PRC were entitled to think that they would hold out for some clear policy commitments, such as withdrawl of Itlaian troops from Afghanistan.

Anonymous said...

I know there's always a danger of thinking that the area you've studied in detail is unique, but I really think the choice facing Rifondazione before the last election was... well, unusual. If the French Left were instrumental in getting Sarkozy elected instead of Royal, that'd be bad, but it could potentially be justified in terms of strengthening the Left. For the Italian Left to keep Berlusconi in power would have been a disaster - and the Left's own activists felt this as strongly as anyone. Different parts of the opposition to Berlusconi had different perspectives, but they all included the need for unity. To be brutal, the Left was always going to have to sell its soul to Prodi (or at least loan it) - the trouble is that it looks as if they've sold too cheap.

AN said...

I think one of the strong aspects of Murray Smith's analysis is that he argues: "When you are seriously challenging the social democrats as the first party of the Left (which is the case), it is quite impossible to avoid the question of governmental participation, and you have to say clearly why you will not go into government and on what conditions you would. "

The situation in Italy was in a sense unique, but it is also one manifestation of a general phenomenon.

The situation in germany does not seem to have had quite as much attention in Britain as it deserves. And I must also say that so far the analysis and behaviour of the SWP's sister organisation there seems to have been spot on:

neprimerimye said...

Reading an article such as this one it is very tempting to mutter 'Pabloite liquidationism' and leave things at that.

The trouble is that the article really is liquidationist in that its entire argument is that revolutionaries ought not build group based on a revolutionary platform but should rather loyally particpate in constructing wider 'radical' party formations.

Which is a compelling argument in some ways, albeit one I reject, but has in practice led to a loss of revolutionary cadre as the groups move to the right in order to make contact with those forces identified as being co-participants in building radical parties.

As Murray Smith is a member of the USFI I note the recent critique of a position similar to his by the German based RSB.

AN said...

MIke, the question of retaining and developing cadre is an important one.

I think the United Left in the SSP made a mistake in disolving themselves, as it is important to have an uncompromising pro-party platform in the broader formation, in order to develop cadre, defend the ideas of class independence, and to argue for no comromise away from the strategic goal of socialism. The SSP as a broad party cannot in itself develop a marxist cadre, that is the responsibility of Marxists within the SSP.

However on day to day tactical issues, and even year by year strategic issues, there is no reason to assume that a caucus of revolutionsries will make better judgements than any other caucus within the party.

Korakious said...

Well, the United Left was not an explicitly Marxist organization, and many of its key members were not Marxists. Some of those that were,were not really of the opinion that the SSP needed "Marxist cadre".

The danger with the UL not dissolving was that it was seen by many as a shadowy group within the SSP, despite the fact that all our names were in public display, and its prolonged existence could shake the faith of many members to our party as an inclusive group.

I personally believe that the development of Marxism within the SSP is a goal to strive to and I have already started discussing with comrades the prospect of bringing together a group of Marxists solely on the basis of promoting Marxism within the party and establishing a Marxist educational programme.

Now, as for a pro party platform, I don't think this is necessary any longer. The vast majority of the SSP membership is not in any platform and does not see the party as a coalition of forces. With the departure of the SWP (and CWI) there are no longer groups of any significance within the SSP whose allegiance lies elsewhere. The Republican Communist Network (of which I am a member), the only platform within the SSP of any significance after the split, is uncompromising in its support for the SSP as the vehicle for the socialist struggle in Scotland.

Ken said...

I think the CPB could play a more constructive role that in it does in Britain, although Ii am generally sympathetic to a lot of its positions.

Andy, could you expand a bit on this? From reading your post I've sometimes wondered why you're not in the CBP! In fact, I've sometimes wondered why the CPB is never even considered by various revos as a pole for regroupment - given that it's an 'actually existing' Marxist party, so to speak :-)

Ken said...

'reading your posts', I mean!

Kevin Williamson said...

I read Murray Smith's articles with interest. They tend to summarise the more progressive of Trotskyite thinking.

But they are also held back by a Trotskyite blindspot to a different type of political process taking place in the European left.

The most interesting developments in Europe are not taking place around the State Socialist parties such as the SSP, the Red-Green Alliance, nor even the Portuguese Left Bloc, - as welcome as these groups are in adding to the leftist process - but are around, on the one hand, the pro-Independence lefts of say, the Basque Country, Catalunya, Brittany, Scotland, and Corsica all of whom are developing a much more progressive ideology than old school 20th Century Trotskyism.

These new political developments are based more on merging ideologies which merge Left Marxian Socialism plus Identity Socialism rather than economistic Trotskyism.

Also, unacknowledged (by Murray) are the emerging forces of libertarian and co-operative socialism that are more in tune with the processes at work in Latin/South America.

To compare say, the Scottish Socialist Party and Batasuna from the Basque Country is instructive. The SSP fell to pieces at the first wee crisis over Tommy Sheridan whereas Batasuna could never be decimated in such a way.

Ideologically the SSP (I'm speakign as a founder member and former national spokesperson in the SSP until 2005) lags way way behind Batasuna in terms of developing a new theoretical discourse and apporach to both class politics, and, crucially, identity politics.

In this age of neoliberalism and American Empire national identity will re-asseert itself among stateless nations, and among the imperial states such as France and England, as a apowrful anti-imperial ideology.

Sadly Murray hasnt even bothered examining or even acknowledging such a development. I'll put this down to the usual centralist ideologies of the old style Trotskyist left, which are the direct descendants of the authoritarian centralists who directed the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The progressive left need more authoritarian centralists like Robespierre and Lenin like we need a whole in the head.

The main flaw in Murray Smith's thinking and analysis is an over-infatuation with left vanguardist parties rather than leftist movements.

Aye, the authoritarian centralist ideologies of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky still has a vice-like grip on whole sections of the left, rendering them pretty much impotent and irrelevant, despite the absolute failure of state socialism.

AN said...

Hi Kevin, good to hear from you, I enjoy your Scottish patient blog.

To be frank I am too ignorant of Basque politics to comment on Batasuna, but from here in England where the Brit-left dominate the arguments, with what is essentially a red painted unionism, the SSP’s commitment to independence seems to have about the right amount of emphasis. And I know that Murray himself has written on the nationall question:

Again I think you are a bit harsh on the SSP over the Sheridan fiasco. It could have been handled better, but it is easy with hindsight, and I am not sure that the SSP are as finished off as you judge them to be. I think whatever the result on 3rd May, the move of the Labour party away from its traditional role leaves a space for a left alternative to be built, and the SSP are the most obvious place to start.

The only scenario I foresee where real challenges would be presented would be if Sheridan is elected, and no other left candidate.

AN said...


Ok, Perhaps I could have more accurately said that the UL needed to evolve and change, rather than disband itself.

I tink from my point of view there are two aspects to this.

i) as you say, there is a role for “bringing together a group of Marxists solely on the basis of promoting Marxism within the party and establishing a Marxist educational programme.”

ii) in reality all organisations (especially those with a salaried staff) develop relationships and political currents, and it is better that this is explicitly done on the basis of open political platforms, rather than personalities. (To a certain degree the early handling of the Sheridan debacle seems to have suffered from the attempt of leading members to sort it out in the inner circle)

Perhaps you are right that a Marxist study circle is all that s needed right now, but in the future it may be necessary to fight for a particular vision of the party.

neprimerimye said...

In light of the electoral results in France i suspect what we shall see next in that country is further moves towards the right on the part of much of the far left. Echoing the disastrous views expressed by many on this thread.

I'm astounded that anybody can even think for a second that the small very right wing CPB might somehow be a vehicle for regroupment. Or that the SSP was ever worth a damn.


AN said...

Ken , you ask a good question:
“From reading your posts I've sometimes wondered why you're not in the CBP! In fact, I've sometimes wondered why the CPB is never even considered by various revos as a pole for regroupment - given that it's an 'actually existing' Marxist party”

I think the CPB has a generally sound approach to working within the existing current realities of the Labour movement, in terms of their ability to develop serious long term relationships, and work alongside friends and allies to try and realise the best achievable outcome at any one time.

For example, the CP are arguing a credible position on the McDonnell leadership campaign, recognising its importance and seeking to boost it, especially in the unions, while at the same time having a sense of proportion.

I also think (perhaps paradoxically) that the parties from the official communist tradition start from the most mature position for opposing the legacy of Stalinism. Unlike the trots they cannot simply say “oh, it wasn’t us”, and they take a rounded approach to contextualise the crimes and/or mistakes of the socialist governments against the crimes of Western imperialism.

Having said all that, the CPB are currently not seeking to play an active role in regroupment. This is nothing intrinsic in their political DNA, as the PDS in Germany are playing a strong and positive role in regroupment. It seems rather to do with the CPB not having fully come to terms with the change in the Labour party – this manifests itself most clearly in Scotland, where the CPB is opposing independence, and not only standing outside the SSP, but standing candidates against the SSP. In my opinion the best possible outcome in Scotland for the left would be the biggest possible vote for independence parties, and within that the biggest possible vote for the SSP (and hopefully MSPs and councillors elected) – not as the CP argue, Labour being returned. (the fact that the Scottish TUC only voted 14 to 13 last week to back Labour shows the wind really has changed)

So I would consider joining the CP, if it were apparent to me that the party was intent on playing a positive role in left regroupment, or that the currents within the CP sympathetic towards that aim had sufficent enough chance of success, and my participation would be useful.

If the CP did that then I think you might be right that they might attract a layer of ex-members from the left groups. But there is also an undigested legacy of Stalinophobia with many comrades from a trot background.

Anonymous said...

An intersting article by Murray Smith but I agree withothers about his comments on Refondatzione. It is also a shame that there is no comment about Spain where the PCE is still relatively strong but has moved forward by being the base of Izquierda Unida. This has broadened its appeal and although only a minor player in natuional politics has a very strong base at a local level controlling councils in many smaller communities. Whilst it needs to associate itself with the Soc. Dem. PSOE it still as with the SSP manages to maintain a strong anti-capitalist manifesto. A look at how it has evolved and developed would help in many other countries.

Pete Brown (Granada Spain)

AN said...

Thanks for that Pete,

I remember being in holiday on the Costa de la Luz about 10 years ago during the local elections, and i was very impressed by the obvious size and impact of the Izquierda Unida campaign.