The road to a united left


In the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s the working class is facing a massive assault on living standards and rights. The capitalists are well organised at a national an international level, when a government looks like it is to fall and break the austerity consensus it is quickly propped up. In Europe this has come through technocratic governments in Italy and Greece and budgetary oversight by the core capitalist powers Germany and France. In Britain we have faced a concerted onslaught yet our movement has offered little in reply. The trade unions in their current state have proved to be no shield to the Conservative-led government attacks. The Labour Party, rarely a fighter for the working class is positioning itself as the “little-less” party. A little-less austerity. A little-less racism. A little-less environmental destruction. A little-less of everything the current government is doing. Ultimately they offer more of the same medicine on a smaller spoon.

In this space the left has been incapable of moving forward in Britain (and in many other countries). The lack of a mass movement has compounded the long-term decline and fracturing of left despite the hopes around successive unity projects over the last two decades. We face a movement that is split on issues of ego, history and petty bureaucratic regimes. Anyone unaware of the way the left normally operates will find the idea of radical organisations closing down debate and forcing out those with slight theoretical or tactical disagreements extremely strange and alienating. Yet, this is the norm among the detritus of the left. Even on a basic level, fighting the cuts, the left has proven itself inadequate. Apart from having four “national” anti-austerity campaigns run by three different Trotskyist groups all four have tailed behind the left-wing of the trade union bureaucracy. Despite many lofty pretensions these campaigns organise no genuine rank-and-file networks to build an alternative centre of power within the movement. If we want to make any serious impact we must move beyond the infantile separation of the anti-cuts movement and form a united anti-cuts federation.

We would still need to go further, we need to think about bringing the left together in a new organisation. In Britain the experience of unity initiatives is an open sore that led to further decline and demoralisation. As the gap between tasks and resources continue to widen we have to again try and come together. Our starting point must be a re-appraisal of past attempts in Britain and abroad of how we have got unity initiatives so wrong in the past but also what new projects such as Syriza in Greece and the New Anticapitalist Party in France can teach us. If we want to see a fightback, if we want to live up to the challenges we have set ourselves as a movement then we must build a credible alternative to the capitalist parties.

Unity: Some lessons from Europe

Despite a promising start the ongoing disintegration of the United Left Alliance in Ireland has served as another example in sectarian short-sightedness and opportunism. Despite the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s the left has for the most part remained a marginal force offering left-Keynesianism as a solution to the crisis. In Ireland the coming together of the Socialist Party, People Before Profit/Socialist Workers Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) and some small grouplets and individuals managed to organise a serious political challenge that propelled five Teachtaí Dála (deputies) into the Dail at the 2011 general election. Yet within 18-months the ULA had lost all momentum and most of its credibility under the strain of opportunism and sectarianism.[1]

The WUAG and the Socialist Party have now left the ULA and consider the project for all intent and purposes dead. The hopes after the election of a new united party were dashed as the largest groups refused to give the ULA a life of its own, for the Socialist Party and SWP the ULA was a secondary project at the mercy of whatever turn their organisations decided to take. This of course left the non-aligned workers in a situation where they had little to no control over the direction of the ULA. As we have learnt over and over again such a top-down stitch up stymies attempts to grow a genuine organisation of the class. Furthermore the ULA followed another common theme of such initiatives, it went with the lowest common denominator politics. Tacking ever so slightly to the left of the unions.

The collapse of the ULA is of course not a new phenomenon on the European left. It is worth looking at a few other cases where the left got it terribly wrong. During the period of relative economic stability and growth, from the collapse of the Soviet Union until 2007, the European left embarked on several projects to forge a new path. In Italy the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) attempted to lead the way in re-establishing the communist left in Italy from 1991; drawing in thousands of workers and building within the new anti-capitalist and later the anti-war movements. Eventually the PRC broke apart after supporting the Italy’s contribution to the occupation of Afghanistan resulting in electoral wipe out with the fall of the second Prodi government (2006-2008).[2]

The idea behind the PRC was simple, re-organise the remnants of the communist left after the liquidation of the Communist Party of Italy into the Democratic Party of the Left. Furthermore to create a space for discussion and debate through building deeper connections to workers and those involved in the new social movements. In the process, under the leadership of Fausto Bertinotti, PRC gave up the idea of being a party that politically led the anti-capitalist movement and decided to be at the service of the movement instead.[3] Whether this was nothing more than a manoeuvre to secure the support of radical youth is debatable as the party politically drifted consistently towards social democracy and towards a position that a plural left that could and should govern.

In a short time it became the leading left force in Europe at the heart of the social forum movement. The PRC maintained an energetic life moving with the ebb and flow of the new social movements, participating in elections and party building. Whilst some gains were made, the task of refounding communism eventually fell off the agenda completely. The PRC never held a single congress dedicated to its programme.[4] This lack of clarity and direction helped create an organisation that depended on a leadership capable of grasping the political opportunities and a largely passive membership that could be turned from one tactical line instantly.

The next breakthrough for the left came from Germany with Die Linke thanks to the fusion of The Labour and Social Justice Electoral List and (WASG) the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in 2007. The latter being the collected remnants of the former ruling party of the German Democratic Republic; Socialist Unity Party (SED). The unity of these forces along with smaller Trotskyist organisations such as Socialist Alternative (SAV) opened an opportunity for the left to elaborate a political alternative to the Social Democrats. The merger became almost inevitable after a PDS/WASG joint list in 2005 received 8.7% of the vote, giving them 54 MPs.

While Die Linke enjoyed brief enthusiasm from left-wing activists and some attention among workers it failed to match up to it promise. The party was run top-down with a bureaucracy cementing itself around charismatic and popular figures like party leaders Oscar Lafontaine, Katja Kipping and Gregor Gysi. This top-down alliance was just as much about vote seeking as it was the formation of a credible all German left party. [5] After the merger was cemented in 2007 any hopes of creating a radical left evaporated. The party suffered due to a bureaucratic internal life and a leadership looking for ways to continue the involvement in local and regional Government as the PDS had previously done. It should be remembered that in 2002 the PDS had dropped any pretence of opposing the social market economy [6] with the adoption of its Grundatzprogramm. In Berlin and Brandenburg Die Linke entered a “red-red” government with the SPD. In exchange for ministerial posts and a taste of power Die Linke opened the door to severe cuts. [7] Workers can have no confidence in a party that talks about defending welfare and services but then does the opposite in action.
This tendency to move closer to the SPD in hope of a “red-red” government at a federal level meant limiting the politics of Die Linke. Making sure the party was just to the left of the SPD and in doing so making it become almost irrelevant as the SPD took a left-turn in rhetoric in a period of prolonged opposition. At Erfurt in 2011 Die Linke voted on a new programme involving hundreds of amendments. At the gathering deputy-party chair Sarah Wagenknecht called on delegates to “pass a programme that you know we can all support”.[8] After years of discussion delegates came away from that conference with a vague commitment to the welfare state but also for a “fundamental transformation of society, that will overcome capitalism.” [9] Whilst this is vague, it does give revolutionaries in Die Linke an opportunity to press the reformist leadership when it makes compromises.

Hope of a breakthrough came from France when the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire (LCR) dissolved itself into Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in 2009. The process to form the NPA came on the back of riots and growing discontent in the banlieues in 2007 where the LCR and others on the revolutionary left sought to strengthen and politicise working class youth frustration. The process to create the NPA involved mass meetings across France where the role of a anticapitalist organisation was debated in full with the breadth of opinions ranging from anarchism to social democracy to environmentalism to Trotskyism.

After months of discussion and debate delegates representing over 450 local committees and 9,100 members convened to thrash out a programme, organisational structure and ensured “that there was maximum discussion and that as many delegates as possible were able to intervene; in one of the more contentious debates, after the opposing amendments were moved, over 60 delegates contributed to the discussion. The discussions were also characterised by an impressive number of women, including younger women, who intervened in the debates. The seriousness with which the comrades accorded to the process of democratic discussion was striking.” [10] Politically the NPA did declare itself as revolutionary but did not take on the Trotskyist traditions of the LCR. This was positive in that it broke with a movement stuck in the past but also negative as clarity was lost on important issues such as secularism and electoralism.

The founding conference was dogged by the issue of electoral strategy and whether or not to agree common lists and pacts with other left parties. The hope of many of the NPA leaders was to ally with Jean-Luc Melanchon’s Parti de Gauche (PdG), Parti Communiste Francaise (PCF) and even possibly the Trotskyist grouping led by Arlette Laguiller, Lutte Ouvrier (LO). Accumulatively their collective votes were 7.7% in 2007 and an historic 10.44% in 2002. There was a real divide within the NPA between those that were looking for a strategic alliance with the rest of the left, even if that meant in a reformist project. Whilst spending so much energy and time thrashing out an electoral strategy the NPA lost momentum. This was not a problem of factionalism as Alex Callinicos has claimed [11] but a real strategic schism between those wanting to back a larger, yet reformist, left unity project and those who insisted on patiently building up the NPA. Whilst it dithered the PdG took over, and with the backing of the bureaucratic machine of the PCF, the charisma of Melenchon, mass discontent against Sarkozy and a politically weak Parti Socialiste it garnered the support of radical workers. In a massive demonstration over 100,000 attended a rally at the Bastille on 18 March. This movement culminated in last years presidential campaign where mass rallies were held across France with Melenchon winning 11.05% of the vote and coming fourth. In comparison the NPA candidate Philipe Poutou won 1.15%. The lack of a united perspective to build the NPA has led to splits and a decline in membership, activity and prestige. They have been taken over electorally by the Front de Gauche (FdG) and as support shifts from the NPA to the new formation the possibility of a united left organisation committed to revolutionary change and built from the grass roots seems to have been lost for the time being.

Other united left organisations have sprung up across Europe polling small but respectable votes and playing central roles in the working class movement. There have been many mistakes, an over emphasis on electoral politics, a top down approach or a liquidation of revolutionary politics for quick political gains. There have also been positives too, new younger layers have brought energy and dynamism to a left that struggled to move beyond the debates of periods and struggles long passed. In many countries the united left parties offer a public voice to the movements opposing austerity. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the work of Syriza in Greece.

The rise and rise of Syriza

Of all of the left parties to emerge in Europe over the last two decades Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) is proving to be the most important in the current period. Faced with a near total collapse of living standards the Greek working class has shifted their allegiance from a party of government, the “socialist” PASOK to Syriza. Polls in Greece have consistently placed Syriza in a winning position over the last few months, to aid this the leadership has embarked on a process to change Syriza into a unified party.

Syriza’s foundations lie in the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the splits that occurred as the Stalinist parties went into long term decline in the 70s. In the 1980s the pro-Soviet KKE and the eurocommunist [12] Greek Left (formerly KKE Interior) formed Synaspismos as an electoral vehicle. This alliance did not last long and in the early 1990s the KKE expelled nearly 45% of its membership, including the current leader of Syriza Alexis Tsipras. Those expelled from the KKE and the Greek Left stayed together in Synaspismos winning a small representation consistently in the Greek Parliament, except in the 1993 election where they failed to reach the 3% threshold.

It was only in 2004 that Syriza came together from Synasmpismo, the Communist Organisation of Greece (KOE), International Workers Left (DEA), Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA) and others. The basis to launch Syriza was the anticapitalist and anti-war movements that were reaching their zeniths at the beginning of the century. [13] It has thus been able to carve out a space on the left of social democracy so that when it came to the austerity drive dictated by the central European powers it had the organisational capacity and profile to play the leading role in organising the opposition. As a party it contains all sorts of strategic views, revolutionaries and reformists work together and fight to thrash their politics. Politically Syriza treads carefully between anticapitalism and social democracy. If they are tested with power and their policies on the state, Europe and ultimately who controls the means of production remain the same the result would be a workers’ party managing the capitalist state. What is positive about Syriza, and the reason why communists mustn’t shirk from working inside it, is that it’s an organisation that has deep support among the working class. The battle over whether Syriza can become a thoroughly revolutionary organisation is still being played out. What we can say is that its plurality strengthens revolutionaries giving them space to challenge the leadership and present a strategic alternative. This was the case at their recent conference where the left opposition garnered the support of just over a quarter of the delegates. [14]

Left unity in Britain

Farce. The only word to describe the attempts in Britain over the last 20 years to bring together the forces of the left into a single formation. The petty bureaucrats that fester at the top of the revolutionary groups have consistently taken short-term gains and out doing political rivals over the patient and serious work of building a working class political alternative. If you’re into 1970s political chic then Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) could just be the place for you. Unfortunately for the rest of the left hopes of a serious break with the Labour Party in 1996 were quickly diminished as Scargill and his henchmen crushed all dynamism and democratic control. Not long after it was launched members couldn’t get away fast enough, the existing left groups were treated as foreign bodies inside the SLP, much like the real Labour Party, and were hounded out creating an atmosphere of distrust that crippled the possibility of turning a break with Labour by a section of the working class into an opening to forge a new organisation that had credible and deep links within the working class movement. Clearly such a top down approach would fail but this mistake would be repeated again and again.

Another opening came with the growth of local Socialist Alliance’s starting in Coventry from 1992, bringing together 8 local groups in 1996 and eventually becoming a real national entity in 1999. The Alliance became a big tent housing the SWP, the Socialist Party (SP), Workers Power, the British affiliate of the Fourth International: the International Socialist Group (now called Socialist Resistance), the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the leftist remnants of the Communist Party of Great Britain organised around their paper the Weekly Worker and others.

It opened up a real opportunity for the left to move beyond sect existence, with some honourable exceptions the constituent elements refused to contemplate dissolving their own small organisations to build a united party. This along with the petty conflict between the leaders of the two largest organisations the SWP and the SP for control undermined the work of activists across the country. Despite this we can take some real positives from the attempt. In 2001 Jack Conrad remarked that the “Socialist Alliance has grown in leaps and bounds – above all with the 2001 general election. There were 98 candidates in England and Wales and some 57,000 votes. Many hundreds of recruits were signed up. Scores of new branches sprung into existence. Garnering trade union support is now within our grasp.” [15] A patient approach where differences were worked out over time and in practice, where a revolutionary programme was developed through the involvement of all members leading to the liquidation of individual groups into a united party would have been a huge gain for our movement in England and Wales.

With the SP walking out because it could not get its own way and the SWP dragging the project towards a new unity initiative with former Labour MP George Galloway the Alliance collapsed. The new initiative, Respect, drawn up behind the backs of Alliance members and was forced through because of the SWP’s dominance and control. This episode was also characterised by the complete mistrust and contempt that the sect leaders held their members in. Under the leadership of John Rees and Lindsey German the SWP turned itself inside out to accommodate those on their right for short-term electoral gain. For example, the issue of LGBT liberation is a central plank of modern revolutionary policy. This policy however did not sit well with a minority of businessmen and Galloway acolytes who saw it as a barrier to gaining votes and support from Muslim communities. However, it was unlikely Galloway et al could have stopped Respect from placing LGBT liberation in its 2004 election manifesto unless the SWP backed their homophobic opportunism. Which they did with all the crass and schizophrenic double-speak they could muster. Speaking at Marxism in 2003 Lindsey German argued that, “Some Muslims are anti-gay and this is perfectly true . . . I am in favour of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth”.[16]

Respect represented a political and organisational low point for the left in Britain. It too was to fall apart after the leadership of the SWP proved a little too brittle to criticism from George Galloway and his allies. There was then the farcical split which saw several of its opportunist councillors switch from Respect to Labour and even the Conservative Party. Respect still exists but is nothing more than a sect to be pushed and cajoled into action on the whims of Galloway as the exit of Salma Yaqoob, a well liked activist in Birmingham, demonstrated on the back of Galloway’s remarks on rape and Julian Assange.

In Scotland things moved quicker, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was established in 1998 out of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and on the back of surprisingly good election results that saw the one time anti-Poll Tax leader Tommy Sheridan win a seat to the new Scottish Parliament. This was the impetus for the SWP finally join. This achievement was to be surpassed in 2003 when Sheridan was joined by 5 more socialist MSP’s; Rosemary Byrne, Frances Curran, Colin Fox, Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie. Things started to unravel a year later when the majority of the leadership refused to back Sheridan’s attempt to sue tabloid papers for defamation over accusations he had visited a swingers club. This soon led to a full split with Sheridan, the SP and the SWP leaving the SSP and where Sheridan’s detractors accused of being the bane of misogynists everywhere “feminists”. This was played out in the bourgeois press and duly ensured that nobody kept their seats with the collapse of SSP’s vote. It has yet to recover.

The closest we have come recently to a unity initiative is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which was formed as a comfortable electoral face for the two largest left groups the SWP and the SP. Other left groups have been kept out or at arms length and the decision making structures are monopolised by trade union or party leaders with no input from the wider movement. Rightly a group non-aligned TUSC supporters organised themselves into the Independent Socialist Network (ISN) and have correctly called for TUSC to be transformed so that it does not “just turn up at election time and then disappear once polling day has past. It has to be involved in workers’ struggles at work and in the communities, day in and day out.” [17] A focus on building local groups that have real links with the broad movement is essential for any unity initiative to get off the ground and grow. This is why the recent Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI) conferenc e supported a motion that in part read that “we particularly want to help the development of grassroots local campaigns. The ACI acts as a network of autonomous local groups that each have their own life and dynamic. These local groups do not seek to replace the work of local anti-cuts campaigns, but bring together activists within the movements who want to see an organised anti-capitalist politics, one that overcomes some of the divisions which still blight the left.” [18]


Since I began writing this a crisis has opened up within the ranks of the SWP around the handling or rape allegations against a leading member. This is also a crisis for the whole left, many good activists and workplace militants will drift away or be hindered by the rumours and accusations circulating on activist blogs, the left press and a couple of bourgeois outlets. Trade union bureaucrats will be ready to use the accusations to silence activists. This places greater responsibility on revolutionaries to unite and present an alternative that is thoroughly committed to women’s liberation.

We have so many groups that have been around far too long and achieved far too little. The left plays sect survival games picking up one or two members here and there but this amounts to nothing more than life support. As the mass movement against austerity is constantly stalled by the bureaucracy, lack of organisation and confidence we must take this time to rebuild and reflect. We need to be able to present a united voice within the movement that can take on the trade unions and the Labour Party when they inevitably undermine action. Armed with a united organisation we can begin to organise effective resistance against austerity and push forward in linking the daily battles with the goal of a communist revolution.

This is article could not be a review of every left unity initiative over the last few decades and clearly there are some important examples that I have missed. However, we can see that there are common and recurring mistakes that we can and must avoid in the coming period. I don’t want to discuss tactics or slogans here, any revolutionary organisation will constantly re-make and re-model these when tested in the movement. If not it will become stale and out of touch like so many of the left groups today. What follows is what I see as basic strategic starting points; a communist rudder to steer our work within the movement.
Organisation and Democracy

Competing ideas and analyses exist and are fought over in society on a daily basis. Whether at work, in the home or at the pub it is unlikely that two people will share the same understanding of society and the political issues of the day. Bizarrely life on the left does not accept this reality, unity in action and discipline against the class enemy have been used to forge left group after left group that is hostile and fearful of differences. Questions of history, tactics or voting for this or that candidate get elevated to the status of principle. Often means get disconnected from ends leading to all sorts of errors, abuses and public humiliations for the left. Yet there is a different approach taken by a growing number of activists in Britain, one that was summed up by Ernest Mandel when he wrote that “If the revolutionary Marxists leave the slightest impression that under the dictatorship of the proletariat the political freedoms of the workers will be narrower than under bourgeois democracy – including the freedom to criticise the government, to have opposition parties and an opposition press – then the struggle to overcome the propagators of parliamentary illusions will be incommensurably more difficult, if not condemned to defeat. ” [19]

We need to move away from the notion that difference in left organisations is a cancer to be removed whether through bureaucratic prescription or extreme hostility against dissenters by the leadership and their supporters. A plural organisation would be one that would have open faction rights, forums and bulletins that discuss every aspect of political work. There would be papers and websites that publicly reflect debates within the organisation and within the revolutionary movement generally.

Extreme opposition

When a workers’ party joins a government, especially as a minority partner, they often lose legitimacy among the working class and tend to be ripped apart by splits over how and if the party’s representatives should support the government. PRC in Italy lost all political credibility when it joined Romano Prodi’s government and supported the war in Afghanistan. In Germany Die Linke joined regional governments ending up supporting an administration that was openly attacking working conditions and living standards. Again undermining their support and demonstrating how a workers’ party can be co-opted into capital to help manage and control aspirations and resistance. In Britain we have seen the spectacle of a socialist council administration in Liverpool from 1983 to 1986 run by the Militant tendency. Elected on the back of resistance to Thatchers attacks the socialist administration soon suffered the rude awakening of running a council as a capitalist enterprise. As it tried to improve the lives of workers it found itself making redundancies, cutting services and in opposition to daily resistance by workers. This was a disaster for the left and it appeared that the revolutionaries were no different than the usual Labour councils that promise change and deliver very little. If the polls are to be believed Syriza may be faced with forming a majority government soon or asked to join a government of national unity. To do so would be suicide, literally if they leave the army intact, the structures of the capitalist state would distort and turn a workers’ party from a vehicle of social change into a force for compromise.

In times of revolution the question of participation of workers’ organisations in capitalist governments is even more important. During the Spanish Revolution of 1936 to 1939 the most important and inspirational working class organisation the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) collapsed under the pressure of the war and joined the bourgeois government. This is not an attack on the anarchists or the heroic members of the CNT and its organisation yet its support of the republican government have valuable lessons for all of the left. The CNT declared in its paper Solidaridad Obrera that “the CNT accepts that historical necessity in order to serve the country, with the emphasis on winning the war promptly so to avoid the disfigurement of the popular revolution. ” [20] Tragically this subordination of the revolution to the capitalist state helped to open the doors to the CNT’s later suppression. The gains made by revolutionary workers and peasants organised through the CNT were rolled back in the name of winning the war, CNT columns were disbanded and attacked, its members arrested and executed by a government it had joined.

President Salvadore Allende’s government in Chile (1970 to 1973) suffered a fate similar to that of the CNT. If failed to demobilise the army and dismantle the capitalist state. When a right-wing officers coup led by Augusto Pinochet broke out the government and the movement that supported Allende were unarmed and massacred. Another example would be the appalling role played by the South African Communist Party in the post-apartheid era. It has shamelessly backed continuous ANC governments that have done little to alleviate extreme poverty and have participated in governments that have seen a small minority of ANC officials and loyalists gather vast amounts of wealth. Once again, the left became associated with wealth, inequality and inaction. If the working class is to take power it has to do wholesale, it must pull apart the capitalist state, dismantle its armed forces and security agencies. We have to break completely with the politics of compromise, a political method developed by the Stalinists to improve relations and trade between the West and the Soviet Union. The mass revolutionary organisations of the future must uphold the principle of extreme opposition, only when we can carry out the programme of the revolution should we consider taking power.

Build now, build from below

The left seems adept at promoting and trailing behind leaders whose interest in the movement is centred on what they can get out of it for their careers. In Britain we have had whole political projects, Respect and Solidarity, that depended on the whims and actions of an individual that had gained some media attention. This is a symptom of the top-down way in which the left operates. Deals, programmes and leadership positions are traded behind closed doors to then be presented to members. Such a culture undermines dynamic activity at the base, leaderships become intransigent and defending a political perspective is replaced with defending the twists and turns of a leadership. In the run-up to the recent SWP crisis a contribution to the second Pre-conference Bulletin stated that “I had no idea that to: disagree, question, or think differently would be counted as a disciplinary offence.” [21] And as if to prove a point the leadership went ahead and expelled four former full-timers for having the audacity to discuss differences on a private facebook discussion. This kind of practice is not limited to the SWP but is all too common the left. Often such structures are excused and maintained through a certain Stalinised reading of Lenin and the history of the Bolshevik faction. This has somewhat been undone through the work of activist academics in recent decades and bureaucratic domination is simply not acceptable to the majority of activists. The Bolshevik Martyn Liadov reported that policies and tactics were not handed down from on high but developed “by collective creativity of all social democratic organisations.” [22]

In Britain there are more revolutionaries outside of the organised left than within it. Nothing other than the tireless work of working class activists could bring together a revolutionary organisation that has the participation and following of millions of workers. It is as if, for the sect leaders, the struggle for a democratic, collectivist society; communism is not connected to how we organise in the present. How can we get to a society where everybody has an equal say and an equally valued role in society if we do not practice this now? How can a revolutionary movement be built where obedience, discipline and homogeneity is lauded over debate, enquiry and difference? It can’t, revolutionary organisations must carry within them the seed of a new society and work in a way that demonstrates the superiority of the collective action and organisation.

The generalisation of Bolshevism from the period of retreat in the Russian Revolution (1918 onwards) along with its implantation onto advanced capitalists countries has dragged the movement down into a spiral of ever diminishing returns and decreasing support. We must be clear, we build in a different time, a different society where capitalism has transformed life and work across the globe. There are no gods, no timeless blueprints towards socialism and no trans-historical organisational form. Our task as a left is to understand the organisation of life under capitalism and build the most appropriate organisation in order to fight it. What we need is an organisation with strong stable links within the working class anchored by communist principles. Such an organisation would be built from the bottom up, local organisations would be given the widest possible scope to participate in the class struggle and disseminate communist ideas.

What is the basis for unity today?

We face an enormous job of mobilising and defending the gains of the working class movement in Britain. All aspects of peoples living standards are under attack with little or no coordinated response by the trade unions and the Labour Party. There is an urgent need for the movement to begin to push back against the bureaucracy and build confidence to take action with or without trade union backing. The short-lived student movement in 2010 followed by rioting by working class youths in the summer of 2011 do show that there is widespread anger. It is a testament to the bureaucratic skills of the trade union leaders that they have not called sustained action against the Conservative-led government. Internationally the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East coupled with the eruption of social movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Los Indignados have placed the prospect of social change back on the agenda. We have an opportunity to look towards these new movements, deal with the changes within capitalism and build a credible left.

In 1985 Leo Panitch wrote that “it has fallen to socialists in the last decades of this century to undertake the daunting task of establishing new political directions and institutions, much as our forerunners had to do in the last decades of the last. As before, and despite the very different conditions, these will not come out of thin air but will involve the breaking up and amalgamation and development of organizations that went before. ” [23] Over two decades later we have still not completed this task, we have suffered many defeats and setbacks in the class struggle but we are also to blame. Our movement has spent too much time on get rich quick schemes that were never likely to pay off. The task of rebuilding the left requires patience and an acceptance that any start we make will have to be humble. We will need to debate differences through and build up trust through common work. We must not close off debates early or rush platforms and programmes.

Politically we have to start not only from where we agree but what can bring together a broad organisation. We do not need to have a position on each and every tactic, slogan or campaigning focus what we need is a simple guide to action. We should start with basic revolutionary principles such as internationalism, anti-racism, women’s liberation, the democratic collectivisation of production etc. [24] Such a broad revolutionary basis leaves open the route we will take to achieve our goals, allowing for the mistakes we make, and there will be many, to be corrected by the membership organised in permanent or temporary factions but united in their commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society towards communism.

1. Fightback (Ireland). “Ireland: The departure of the WUAG and the impasse with the United Left Alliance”, In Defence of Marxism (2012)

2. Salvatore Cannavo. “An anti-capitalist left, incompatible with war and neoliberalism”, International Viewpoint,  (2008)

3. Emanuele Saccarell, “Empire, Rifondazione Comunista, and the Politics of Spontaneity”, New Political Science 26, no. 4 (2004): 571.
4. Salvatore Cannavo, “Italy: A Failed Refoundation” in New Parties of the Left, Experiences from Europe, International Institute For Research and Education (London, Resistance Books, 2011)

5. Hilde Coffé and Rebecca Plassa, “Party policy position of Die Linke: A continuation of the PDS”, Party Politics 16, no 6 (2010): 721.

6. Ibid. 728

7. Stephan Kimmerle, “Germany: new government’s savage cuts by stealth*h, Socialism Today”, (2009)

8. Dick Nichols, “Germany: Die Linke’s road to an anticapitalist program”, Green Left, (2011)

9. Die Linke, “Programme of the Die Linke Party”,  (2011)

10. Tina Purcell, “Nouveau Parti Anticapitalist: founding conference report”, Permanent Revolution , (2009)

11. Alex Callinicos, “France: Anticapitalist politics in Crisis”, International Socialist Journal, (2012)

12. Eurocommunism was a tendency that appeared in the laste 1960s that opposed the domination of national parties by the Soviet Union and wanted to link the parties with the emerging new social movements. In the process of emerging out of the Soviet Union’s grasp the Eurocommunists engaged in a wholesale re-evaluation of the their parties, traditions and politics. With many coming to the conclusion that the era of communist parties was at an end. Ultimately it was the move by generally younger ambitous party leaders away from Stalinism towards Social Democracy. In Britain this resulted in the liquidation of the CPGB into the Democratic Left which soon collapsed.

13. Richard Seymour, “A comment of Greece and Syriza”, International Socialist Journal, (2012)

14.”Syriza sets out path to unity”, Ekathimerini, (2012)

15. Jack Conrad, “Towards a Socialist Alliance party”, Second edition (London, November Books, 2001): 9

16. Alison Higgins, *gMaterial Girls*h Review, Permanent Revolution, (2008)

17. Nick Wrack and Will McMahon, “For a new, united socialist party”, (2012)

18. Luke Cooper, “Amendment to proposal #2” Anticapitalist Initiative, (2012)

19. Ernest Madel, “Dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist democracy” Marxist Internet Archive, (1985)
20. Quoted in: José Peirats, “The CNT in the Spanish Revolution: Volume 1” (Oakland, USA. PM Press, 2011): 192

21. Justin, “Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletin No. 2: Opposition to Bureaucratic Centralism” (Socialist Workers Party, 2012): 25

22. Quoted in: Lars T Lih, “Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context” (Chicago, USA. Haymarket Books, 2008): 440

23. Leo Panitch, “Working class politics in crisis: Essays on Labour and the State” (London, UK. Verso, 1986): 52

24. An example of such a broad platform is The Programme of the French Workers Party written by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde in 1880 which can be found online here:



  1. February 9, 2013 at 3:19 am · Reply

    Why wouldn’t we want the working class through one of its political parties to run, manage, or control the capitalist state? How else can we realistically stop austerity? In Greece they’ve had more than 20 general strikes since 2009 and it hasn’t stopped the bourgeoisie yet. We need to take capitalist state power out of enemy hands ASAP.

  2. bill j
    February 9, 2013 at 8:13 am · Reply

    Its not the deepest crisis since the 1930s.

  3. February 9, 2013 at 11:06 am · Reply


    What would happen to a left government in Greece without the rest of Europe catching up? What has happened to isolated left governments who seek to manage capitalism and where does that leave the movement that put them in power? They would be crushed under the weight of trade embargoes, capital flight, lack of access to cheap credit, inflation resulting in mass lay-offs, non-payment of wages or social security and there would be huge crisis as the workers’ party would be unable to deliver on their promises and have to face off against its own base every day. It is also worth thinking what the army and the security forces would do in such a situation. It is not very long ago that there was a military junta in Greece. So should we have a perspective that opens the door to another one? I would hope not.

    I doubt you meant it to be pessimistic but your question of “How else can we realistically stop austerity?” implies that we have reached a point where the left can only aim to manage and reform capitalism down gentler paths. Despite the general strikes, mass opposition by youth and workers and the amazing growth of Syriza the Greek working class does not have the power to break the chains of austerity alone. Our perspective must be continental and predicated on rebuilding the movement and the creation of organisations/parties that coordinate and build struggle across Europe to hold back and maybe reverse aspects of austerity but ultimately we need a strategic aim of coming to power across Europe.

    • February 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm · Reply

      The experience of Venezuela 2002-2013 says otherwise:

      We should not allow ourselves to be over-awed by the hypothetical weaponry and hysterical threats of the bourgeoisie. When left parties win power within the capitalist state, it is not the end of the world for capitalism or big business. They will seek to tame us but we must tame them; they will try to force us to compromise on their terms, we must force them to compromise on our terms.

      Re-writing the Memorandum as SYRIZA proposes is the first step, one that would enjoy mass support. If the capitalists behave in the manner you predict, nationalizing their property would be proper punishment and would probably spur grassroots occupations of their enterprises and such.

      You seem to be ignoring the fact that capital flight, trade embargoes, and other forms of punishment would cause Greece to default on its obligations to its capitalist creditors and threaten the entire European Union’s fragile banking system. You really think they’ll go down that road? I don’t. They’re too greedy and self-interested to commit suicide like that. They aren’t leftists, after all.

      There’s more than 1 way to smash the state:

      • February 11, 2013 at 8:03 pm · Reply

        Pham, I am not sure that Venezuela is a useful example when discussing Greece. We can see very clearly that the Venezuelan state is intact and daily comes into conflict with workers and farmers. What we have in Venezuela is a social democratic advance with mass support funded through oil exports. Having the worlds largest proven oil reserves does give the capitalist class some wiggle room when it comes to buying off a mass movement. Greece, however, accounts for 1.9% of the economy of the European economy and is seen by the central and northern powers to be a dead weight on the EU. That is why they have spent much time and energy installing “fire walls” between the EU and Greece if it should be forced to leave. Another big difference between Greece and Venezuela is the regional context. Venezuela is surrounded by soft reformist left governments with the support of well organised mass movements of farmers and workers. Europe is very different, who in Europe would come to the aid of a left government in Greece? Where is the mass movement in the core states that could hinder attempts at economic punishment and capitalist support for the army and/or the far-right?

        I think it is misplaced to talk about “hypothetical weaponry” of the bourgeoisie when discussing Greece considering its history. The occupation, the civil war, the junta and its fall are still live political issues etched into the collective memory. Whether we take this question seriously or not you can be assured the capitalists will. I am not sure how different taming the state is to the long march of reformism through the state. It’s certainly not a new idea, and it has certainly be proven to be a dead end. There may be modest reforms by a Syriza government but it would be forced to do all sorts of things it never imagined it would if things stay the same within Europe. If you are to manage capitalism in a state that is at the mercy of core powers then you have to play ball otherwise economic sabotage and attempts to destabilise a government is pretty much inevitable.

        • February 11, 2013 at 10:09 pm · Reply

          If you don’t like Venezuela, look at Bolivia under MAS. They don’t have oil, and yet they have reduced poverty dramatically.

          There simply is no other proven way to reverse austerity except to take power within the capitalist state, and even then it will be a tremendous struggle with no guarantee of success.

          We are going to be fighting for reforms on the ground of bourgeois democracy for decades. We better get used to it.

          Or, we can continue to refuse to govern because doing so would involve making compromises with capitalism, but Lenin warned us of the bankruptcy of this “no compromises” path in Left-Wing Communism.

          If we refuse to govern “as a matter of principle,” we are anarchists in practice. Like them, we cede power to the bourgeois parties of neoliberalism.

          Europe is not Venezuela, but Venezuela was also once not Venezuela. In 2002, the Chavez government was similarly isolated and nearly overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup. Those left governments and mass movements you refer to arose after Chavismo and in part because Chavez dared to win, which inspired the masses to come out into the street in his defense.

          If SYRIZA takes power and begins to unwind austerity, that would transform European politics; there are nascent movements in Spain, Italy, and the harder hit countries that would be re-energized by a bit of success (they are mostly stalled under the weight of unending and continual defeats). Golden Dawn’s growing support might also stall in the face of some minor improvements in living standards.

          Of course the capitalists will try “economic sabotage” to “destabilise a government” of the left. That is why we must make a government of the left and then rally the Greek and European peoples to crush those attempts.

          • Luke Cooper
            February 12, 2013 at 7:30 am ·

            Do you have any criticisms of the Chavez government? For example, the role of the state capitalist, pro Chavez oligarchy which his reforms brought into being highlighted by Venzuelan leftists?

          • February 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm ·

            I don’t know enough about Venezuela and Chavez to have strong criticisms or opinions one way or the other. After Occupy, I learned that criticizing things from afar without detailed “insider” knowledge often leads to all kinds of errors.

            The point of the Venezuelan (and Bolivian) example is that a left that refuses to govern is a left that refuses to do what is necessary to begin reversing austerity. The struggle doesn’t end with taking power within the capitalist state; instead, it becomes more complicated and difficult because you have to apply your principles to actually existing reality rather than just denounce the actions and policies of the enemy as bad, wrong, immoral, and evil.

            I have no doubt that there is a class struggle going on within Chavismo even as Chavismo struggles against the old elite. Of course I side with the workers and the oppressed in that fight, but beyond that general orientation I don’t have any specific policy prescriptions for Venezuela.

          • February 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm ·

            Pham, we clearly have different conceptions of how to stop austerity and how we envisage the working class taking power. For me, lasting change must come from below from the energy and self-organisation of the working class through new structures and spaces in opposition to the existing capitalist state that can eventually supersede the capitalist state. Whilst I think you have a conception of change from above expressed through your approach to support the election of the right governments and living vicariously through supporting South American left populists without criticism.

            We must fight for immediate improvements definitely and that does mean puuting pressure on national governments but in Europe we also have a proto pan European state that can support and replace ailing national governments. This is one of the key reasons why general strikes in Greece have not been enough to stop austerity and that is also why a left government in Greece would face impossible odds. We need a Europe wide movement, we need to rebuild our revolutionary worker organisations from the bottom up. If we do not do this then whether Syriza is in power or not austerity will not be defeated.

  4. Luke Cooper
    February 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm · Reply

    Couldn’t disagree more on this one! You can’t abandon the question of power, we should be pushing for power, with a perspective of dismantling the apparatus of capitalist state power. This is the lesson of the Paris Commune after all (in State and Revolution, “Lenin’s most anarchist work” as it is sometimes called).

    • February 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm · Reply

      Couldn’t agree more that we can’t abandon the question of power and that we should be pushing for it. My point in terms of Greece and Syriza is that armed with a radical yet reformist programme and being politically isolated makes a potent recipe for disaster if they take state power. They would at best become the left face of capital, at worst the army with the backing of the central European powers would remove such a government.

      You are right that one lesson of the Paris Commune was about pulling apart the state another obvious lesson is it being crushed in isolation.

      • February 13, 2013 at 9:11 pm · Reply

        I hope you aware that the Paris Commune was actually based on the existing apparatus/institutions of the French government, i.e. its National Guard and municipal administration.

        • February 14, 2013 at 1:50 pm · Reply

          Well, we can quibble over which seats they used in the assembly, whose guns they stole and whose soldiers came over to the red republic. But let’s be clear the Commune of 1871 was the first attempt at workers’ state where the capitalist state was pulled apart, had its suppressive functions “amputated” and was modeled on the democratic participation of the masses at all levels. Marx for example warned against confusing new forms with old ones and in his Civil War in France wrote: “It is generally the fate of completely new historical creations to be mistaken for the counterparts of older, and even defunct, forms of social life, to which they may bear a certain likeness.”

          142 years later we have more experiences, more examples and further developments at building a society where the working class hold power. Where we have been succesful and saw the mass participation of workers, even for a brief moment, was when the revolution was built from the ground up from workplaces, fields and our communities.

          • February 14, 2013 at 5:55 pm ·

            You may call it “quibbling” but the fact of the matter is that the French state in Paris 1871 was pulled apart and smashed from within not from without. This fact has very important implications for whether workers’ parties have any business taking state power and office within a bourgeois democracy. My answer is unambiguously yes.

          • February 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm ·

            The Commune of 1871 was the first real attempt by the working class to impose its power and build new forms of democratic participation in running society. You’re confusing a historical moment where the capitalist state was overthrown with it being taken intact to help with your stick bending to present a wholly reformist argument of why left governments should take office whilst leaving the capitalist state intact. That is managing capitalism not overthrowing it.

          • February 15, 2013 at 1:55 am ·

            The state was overthrown from within, not from without:

            Stick-bending and reformism have nothing to do with historical accuracy.

            Only by taking capitalist state power can we smash it. That is what the Commune proved.

  5. Luke Cooper
    February 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm · Reply

    There are any number of possible eventualities if Syriza took power. They would, for example, get a lot of international support, including access to credit, from Latin America (they have already been negotiating this), which would probably be sufficient to manage a more dramatic staged default if they broke with the EU-German fiscal austerity programme. They may also capitulate to the austerity programme, i.e. EU demand, when in power. There could be a military coup but that’s not the only eventuality, and there are reasons for thinking the Greek ruling class would not countenance it, because they would be thrown out of the European Union (indeed, it would only be posed if Syriza took Greece out, which they certainly don’t want to do). In any case, Syriz need to be put to the test of office, and anticapitalists inside and outside Syriza can push for a much more radical “State and Revolution” scenario, putting demands on leadership to go further than they are prepared to, etc.

    • February 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm · Reply

      Everything you raise as a possibility is about managing capital not the working class taking power. Do we just want to see how well Syriza can manage a default? Or whether the tired old Stalinist motto of “out of Europe into the world” approach would be sufficient for an isolated left government, surrounded by hostile states and overseeing a bankrupt and intact capitalist state could survive longer than a few months?

      If Syriza take office and the movement is forced to pressure it to keep its promises where is the working class party that could organise this opposition and pressure?

  6. Luke Cooper
    February 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm · Reply

    Yes, I am raising concrete, historical possibilities in light of the balance of forces that currently exists. Presumably you agree this is the terrain of debate we should hinge our arguments on?

    But I didn’t imply an political support to any of those possibilities. An anticapitalist perspective should be rooted in a state-and-revolution-style argument which does involve pushing for reformist parties to go further than they are prepared to, and organising anticapitalist opposition to the leadership inside and outside of those parties, focusing on mobilising and cohering extra-parliament forms of power on the streets and in workplaces.

    I don’t get what is to be achieved by saying, “Syriza – don’t take the power”. We want them in power, we want to put them to the test of office, we want to organise a revolutionary current within Syriza that is fighting the leadership. What’s the problem?

    • February 10, 2013 at 5:43 pm · Reply

      The whole put pressure on from below and test a left party with office relies on having a strong and well organised revolutionary current with mass support organised in an independent party not the party of government. I don’t see it in Greece at the moment, do you? This same scenario has been played out again and again and the result has always been defeat.

  7. Luke Cooper
    February 10, 2013 at 6:38 pm · Reply

    But you are talking like a passive observer rather than an activist seeking to influence these events. If we only looked at the world – and the left – as an observer then you could nearly always put money on defeat and win the bet. A depressing historical fact, but true nonetheless.

    Yes, the radical / revolutionary left in Greece is small, but it is growing in support and base. I’m told some opinion polls even give Antarsya a good showing now, underlining the extent to which the political situation is polarising things. How these small currents relate to the 30,000 people that have now joined Syriza is the key question.

    My feeling is they should be campaigning alongside them in elections as well as on the streets, and arguing wider sections of the working class support – and vote for – a Syriza government, but do so without illusions, trying to consolidate a base of support on the streets and in the workplaces that has a more realistic, revolutionary grasp of events.

    And you can’t campaign for a party in elections if you don’t think it should take power – any worker in any country in the world would look on incredulously at anyone who tried to argue that.

  8. February 11, 2013 at 10:45 am · Reply

    Luke, You make some really good points and it is certainly quite a bit to think about and we need to make sure we keep up-to-date with what is going on in Greece and with Syriza. I do not, however, think that this is an argument between passive/active participants in the struggle because the level of our intervention whether you are for a Syriza government or are cautious about it amounts to writing, discussing and analysing to the best of our collective abilities what is going on. I am not sure where Antarsya is in terms fo the polls but it certainly is not a mass force at present and I guess you would agree that the place for communists in Greece must be Syriza and Antarsya.

    Your final point about campaigning in elections for a party you think should not become a government of a capitalist state is a good question. I don’t have a perfect answer but I would say that the important thing at the moment is to build up new centres of public authority with assemblies in communities and workplaces linked to councils of action. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or marginalise the struggle for immediate improvements and if a Syriza government is formed it would be on a basis of rolling back the attacks but that also requires us, through our modest means, to warn of the inherent dangers an isolated left government in Greece would face.

  9. Luke Cooper
    February 11, 2013 at 2:01 pm · Reply

    Thanks Chris, it has been a good discussion and I certainly agree that a reformist Syriza government in Greece, i.e. attempting to meet *both* capitalist and workers’ demands, is very likely to be quite a car crash, and its concrete possibilities are insufficiently discussed on the left.

    Notwithstanding the very reactionary parts of the Greek situation (rise of fascism, appalling levels of social hardship, etc.), the political problems the left is confronting there are ones “we want to have” in the sense they pose very concretely quite fundamental questions about class power and revolution. I’m sure you agree with that, so I guess I’m just agreeing that it’s important we should keep discussing and thinking about these issues.

  10. Stuart King
    February 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm · Reply

    It’s worth taking up Pham Binh’s comments because at its centre is an argument between reform and revolution. Clearly Pham is on the side of reform and with him are some very powerful forces – the Venezuelan PSUV, the Left Party of Germany, the MAS of Bolivia and the leadership of Syriza, to name only some.

    Pham argues that a left government (eg Syriza) could open up a positive scenario of forcing relief of austerity for Greece on the EU, of mobilising the working class in its support, of making the capitalists “compromise” . We too (as revolutionaries) would support, and fight for, Syriza coming to power, but unlike Pham we are not sanguine about how the state and EU imperialism would deal with such a government and therefore need a strategy to deal with it.

    Whether a left government can make serious reforms and advances in favour of the working class depends on the political and economic circumstances it faces ie what capitalism can be forced to give without its existence being threatened. In Chile the reforms of the Allende government could not be tolerated in a situation of mass mobilisation and threats to the stability of the rest of Latin America thus the Pinochet coup.

    By contrast in Latin America over the last decade left and social democratic governments (Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil) have been able to deliver significant reforms and a degree of redistribution to the poor because they have come to power in an unprecedented decade and a half long economic upswing. (I assume this is what Bill was trying to remind us of in his cryptic one liner – lets not assume the deep European and USA recessions are universal).

    Europe is clearly not Latin America. It is facing deep recession –southern Europe and Ireland – or stagnation (northern Europe). Therefore the most likely outcome of a Syriza government in Greece was and is not compromise by the EU on debt relief and the austerity programme but intransigence. Greece would have been made an example of precisely because of growing opposition in Portugal and Spain – chucked out of the EU and blockaded if it defaulted on its debts. Let’s not forget that Argentina is still having its ships seized and investment blocked 13 years after it defaulted on part of its debts.

    Even in the highly unlikely event of the EU being persuaded to make small compromises, the Syriza leadership would have faced implementing only a slightly less vicious austerity programme. This would have blown up the fragile coalition, disillusioned its supporters and led to a more right wing government taking over.

    That is why Chris is right to say revolutionaries would remain in “extreme opposition” even if they had a parliamentary presence in a Syriza coalition. Revolutionaries would not have entered a Syriza government but given it conditional support, voted for measures that helped to workers and against every anti-working class piece of legislation, even if that meant the government losing its parliamentary majority.

    However it is not right to say that revolutionaries would never enter a workers government as a minority. The Communist International discussed just such a possibility in debates about the united front and its programme (check out the minutes of the discussion on the workers government in the Haymarket edition of the CI Fourth Congress). The absolute vital condition for entering any such government was that it was committed to arming the masses, proceeding with measures to break up anti-democratic forces of the state – army, police, judiciary etc, disarming the fascists and rightists, directing the economy in the interests of the masses, taxing the rich etc. Such a revolutionary workers government would of course be a government of civil war against capitalism, a short episode on the road to a fully communist government.

    Why is all this at all relevant to Left Unity in Britain? Because the vast majority of the unity initiatives referred to in Chris’ article were based on Pham Binh’s politics, that is, “we are going to be fighting for reforms on the ground of bourgeois democracy for decades”. Partial exceptions were the NPA and the Socialist Alliance. The SA had a revolutionary, if not fully communist, programme but its actual practice on the ground, its arguments in elections, were pure left reformism, thanks largely to the dominance of the SWP and the SP in the alliance. The same is true of TUSC today.

    So Pham’s arguments need to be taken seriously, and seriously refuted, if we are to contribute to establishing a revolutionary anticapitalist alternative rather than yet another left reformist unity initiative.

    • February 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm · Reply

      It’s not either/or reform/revolution. Rosa Luxemburg settled this “debate” a long time ago as far as I’m concerned and the Communist International expanded on her basic points in its workers’ government discussions.

  11. February 15, 2013 at 2:05 am · Reply

    I find it amusing that comrades are responding to me as if I was the reincarnation of Bernstein. I also find it strange that so much of the debate hinges on little more than speculation; to open up the next phase of the class struggle in Greece, SYRIZA must win and take power.

    • Luke Cooper
      February 15, 2013 at 11:41 am · Reply

      I agree with the arguments around the need to take power (not “extreme opposition” as Chris and Stuart have outlined, a troubling un-Marxist formulation!), but the question is what you do with it and how you use it, i.e. whether you dismantle instruments of capitalist power through workers’ self-organisation at the workplace and civic level, or you manage capital.

      It’s when you invoke the populist governments of Venezuela and Bolivia as examples that the reformist illusions (to put it mildly) become pretty clear. These are eminently capitalist governments, whose economy observe a capitalist cycle of expansive growth, not democratic planning for human need by an emancipated working class in control of its destiny.

      If you really are ignorant of the political landscape in these states then don’t use them as examples. But if you want to read more about it, then the work of Jeffrey Webber, a Latin American specialist and radical leftist, is very good, and there is some discussion of his position on the El Alto commune in the new book by David Harvey, “Rebel Cities”.



      • February 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm · Reply

        I am not sure what is un-Marxist about the position that the working class can only come to power as a political majority organised through their parties and revolutionary bodies e.g. councils of action? If a workers’ party comes to power without a majority in society backing, developing and fighting for a revolutionary programme then what exactly will that party do?

        Look at the examples above in the article of Rifondazione, Die Linke, Allende, CNT and the SACP. Do we not learn from history and try not to repeat mistakes?

        The communist position I think we should hold is that we must fight for the whole left to have a policy that we are not simply struggling against austerity or as Nick Wrack said last weekend a “particular brand of capitalism” but the whole system. We have to build up a state within a state, develop our own centres of public authority and should only consider coming to power when we have a majority for revolution.

  12. Luke Cooper
    February 15, 2013 at 2:42 pm · Reply

    It’s the formula “extreme opposition” that I was saying was un-Marxist, I think you are choosing to define that in a certain way which doesn’t quite capture what it means in the everyday sense. Marxists should push for working people to take power over their own lives, and root this conception in a vision of an entirely different state (one not confined to the nation-state either, but transnational in its qualities and ambitions). Marxists are not extreme oppositionists. Sorry if that comes across as dogmatic – it kind of is – because the formula extreme opposition doesn’t feature in any of the discussions in the communist movement on this question! It’s much closer to an anti-power conception of John Holloway etc.
    Then again, Holloway considers himself a Marxist (though I’ve never quite understood why…) 🙂

    • Luke Cooper
      February 15, 2013 at 6:24 pm · Reply

      ps I think the formula was also used by the Mensheviks in 1905, who were also Marxists, but hey Marxism is clearly a broad church. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I don’t consider it compatible with my personal conception of what Marxism means.

    • February 15, 2013 at 7:53 pm · Reply

      Not sure about the Holloway connection but ‘extreme opposition’ is a simple formulation to explain some core principles. The independence of the working class politically and therefore organisationally from the capitalists, their state and their parties. Secondly that communist revolution can only come about through the active participation of millions through new organs of power in open contradiction to the capitalist state.

      There will always be temptations for workers’ parties to join capitalist governments and manage capitalist states but if we are serious about wholesale change within society then we need to have the patience to build a majority that supports and develops the struggle for a communist society. There can be no shortcuts, the act of overthrowing capital must come from below not from electing the right government or the left joining a government as a minority partner.

  13. February 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm · Reply

    Of course these are capitalist governments! Did I ever say/imply otherwise?

    We have to expand the floor of the cage if we want to build up the strength and momentum to smash it altogether. There is nothing reformist in that. A reformist (as Lenin said) is someone who seeks to limit the aims, scope, intensity, and methods used by the working class. I’m saying we have to use the capitalist state against the capitalist class, explode the contradiction of bourgeois democracy from within it, the way the Commune did. Bolivia and Venezuela have made important steps in this direction. Is it perfect? Of course not. But if Chavez and Morales declined political office and remained in “extreme opposition,” those gains, however shaky and insufficient, would not have been made.

    Weber claims Morales and MAS are simply “neoliberalism reconstituted.” This is false. Extreme poverty in Bolivia has fallen tremendously since Morales took power because neoliberalism was rolled back. Weber ignores this fact because he wants to damn Morales and MAS as demobilizing Menshevik reformist sellouts. His view is nothing short of ridiculous.

  14. February 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm · Reply

    So you think the lesson of Allende is that it was mistaken for him to take power? You would have preferred ITT remain in private hands? Are you aware that cordones, the closest thing to soviets at that time, arose only during Allende’s government in part because the masses felt (rightly or wrongly) that the government was “theirs”?

    Again, historical precedent shows the folly of your position opposing taking power within the capitalist state where that possibility exists. Waiting for soviets to form someday to smash the existing apparatus is not a viable strategy.

  15. Luke Cooper
    February 16, 2013 at 11:04 pm · Reply

    Surely “working class power” is better?

  16. Stuart King
    February 17, 2013 at 7:03 pm · Reply

    The fatal flaw in Pham’s argument is he believes that “taking power” consists of winning a parliamentary majority and forming a government. That is a reformist notion. Revolutionaries recognise that real power lies outside the parliamentary and government institutions, in the army, police, judiciary and the myriad of capitalist institutions used hobble, obstruct and if necessary overthrow socialist governments that want real change.

    Of course we are in favour of socialist movements taking office and we support every measure that helps the working class and reduces poverty, whether that is done by Chavez, Morales or any one else. Indeed we demand that they take more and radical measures. But these are reforms, reforms that can be swept away at a change of government.

    Only if a socialist movement entered government determined to take the measures necessary to dismantle and paralyse the organs of bourgeois rule would they have any chance of instituting lasting change. As I said above this would open up a real civil war with the capitalists. Chavez, Morales, and one can say the leadership of Syriza, have no such intention, programme or politics, to do this.

    In using the term “extreme opposition” in relation to government, Chris was merely reaffirming that communists don’t enter bourgeois governments. There is nothing “unmarxist” about that, for revolutionaries it’s common sense.

    • February 18, 2013 at 11:26 pm · Reply

      A reformist would tell you that we can legislate capitalism away. That’s not what I’m saying. An elected government with a socialist majority (preferably revolutionaries and not opportunists) would have to be linked with the active masses in the streets as well as the rank-and-file of the military to forestall any coup attempts. Call it a Chavez strategy as opposed to an Allende strategy.

      • February 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm · Reply

        That makes no sense Pham. Chavismo is a reform strategy however you look at it or dress it up. The difference between Allende and Chavez rests on the regional balance of forces and the USA being stuck in a prolonged conflict in the Middle East.

  17. Luke Cooper
    February 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm · Reply

    I get the point, but you need to change the terminology. In 1905 when the Mensheviks talked about extreme opposition they were against a struggle for power – that’s where the Holloway comparison comes in (“change the world without taking power” etc). In any case, from a purely practical level defining your argument in terms of “extremes” and “opposition” is no way to reach out to a working class that want a left wing government, much better to enter into an argument about the type of government we should form and on whose (class) power it should rest.

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