In Defence of the Revolutionary Party
II. WHAT IS A REVOLUTIONARY PARTY?
The question has been raised implicitly in the Scottish Militant Labour EC document and explicitly in some of the discussions: Is it still possible, in this post-Stalinist period, to build a revolutionary party of the type envisaged by Lenin and Trotsky? The collapse of the Stalinist regimes not only discredited the Stalinist caricature of the ‘socialist society’, but also discredited the grotesque totalitarian caricature of the revolutionary party.
For instance, the concept of ‘democratic centralism’, which in the hands of the ruling bureaucracy became in reality ‘bureaucratic centralism’, which turned the party into an instrument of totalitarian rule, means that the term can no longer be used. We still defend the essential features of democratic centralism, but it is now better to use the term, ‘democratic unity’, emphasising that the democratic rights of members must be safeguarded at all times. (see Short Thesis on the Revolutionary Party by Peter Taaffe, Members Bulletin 28, April 1998)
For a Bold Step Forward (82) itself poses the question: "What is a revolutionary party in the present era?" But nowhere does it explicitly address this issue (though the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s subsequent proposals make it clear that they are advocating a broad party rather than a revolutionary party).
Clearly, it is not a question of whether or not the party includes the term ‘revolutionary’ in its name, at least in the context of Britain in the present period. Under present conditions, as we have explained elsewhere, it would be a mistake to use the name ‘revolutionary’ or to advocate ‘revolution’ in our programme as opposed to advocating ‘a socialist transformation of society’. This is an issue of presentation, not of political substance.
However, the Scottish document states that "we believe there are fundamental differences of approach" (3) involved in this debate. We would ask the Scottish comrades: Is this a difference about the possibility in this period of constructing a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism? During the debate at the Scottish Militant Labour Conference in Glasgow on 28/29 March, it was raised that, since the collapse of Stalinism, it was no longer possible to build a revolutionary party of the type envisaged in the past. Does the Scottish Militant Labour Executive take this position?
The document also states that "the [British] EC reply, we believe, artificially counterposes the concept of a revolutionary party to the idea of a broad socialist party in a rigid and undialectical fashion." (16) But what is the Scottish Executive’s concept of a revolutionary party?
For a Bold Step Forward (2) amends the statement in the first document (Initial Proposals, para 20) that it would be a mistake "to turn back the calendar and return to the strategy of building an independent Marxist organisation in isolation from the rest of the left". This now becomes "building a Marxist organisation independently of the rest of the left". But this raises even more questions.
Is the Scottish Militant Labour EC arguing that it is no longer possible or desirable to build an organised tendency based on a distinct theoretical tradition and programme, operating on the principle of democratic centralism, whether as a separate party or within a broader formation? This is what we have always meant by the term "an independent Marxist organisation".
The Scottish document accuses us of falling into "the trap of rigid formalism". (67) The comrades say "there is no such thing as a chemically pure revolutionary party". (16) The development of the Marxist movement internationally, they say, "is not solely a history of arithmetical progression. At different stages, fusions, mergers, and amalgamations have been carried out in order to enlarge the active forces of socialism and to expand the influence of Marxist ideas." (5)
But who is arguing for a "chemically pure" revolutionary party? When we win fresh layers to our organisation, through propaganda work and campaigning activity, many of them join on the basis of our fighting approach and the immediate issues. Winning them to our rounded-out programme and methods of party-building is a process which takes place over a much longer period. This is especially true in the current period.
Moreover, the bigger our organisation grows, the more different trends among the radical, active layers of the working class and youth will be reflected by trends within the party. The crucial point is that democratic unity provides a framework within which differences can be debated throughout the party. Decisions on policy, strategy, tactics, etc, can be taken on the basis of democratic discussion, making it possible to unify the party in action around decisions.
Moreover, we also seek to win recruits, either individually or in groups, from other organisations, on the basis of agreement with the key points of our programme, not necessarily on every issue. This has, in fact, been the experience of several Committee for a Workers’ International sections in the recent period. We have also made it clear that we do not believe that a mass revolutionary party can be built in a linear way, solely through "arithmetical progression". We recognise the possibility of fusion with other revolutionary trends.
When it is a case of a group joining our organisation, whether it is through them merging into our organisation or through a formal fusion, it has to be on the basis of a principled agreement. It would be absurd to demand a hundred percent agreement on all issues. Nevertheless, it is essential to draw up a balance sheet of points of agreement and points of disagreement, and attempt to resolve the issues.
There has to be agreement on key contemporary issues of perspectives, programme, orientation and strategy, otherwise, as experience has demonstrated many times, a fusion will rapidly lead to a new split or fragmentation. In the recent period, a number of groups have joined different sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International, notably the group (formerly in the French USFI section) which formed the Committee for a Workers’ International’s new French section, and also the groups from USFI and the International Socialists who recently joined the Belgian section.
These cases clearly represent a growth of our revolutionary organisation through the merging or fusion of other groups.
Alternatively, a revolutionary organisation may decide to join a broader formation or come together with other parties and groups to form a new, broad organisation. The possibility of this tactic was posed before us in Britain when Scargill announced the launching of the Socialist Labour Party in November 1995.
We welcomed the prospect of a new socialist party which could have brought together left parties and groups, trade union activists, and radical sections of the new social movements and single-issue campaigns. Because of his role in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Scargill had the personal authority among activists and much wider sections to launch such a party.
In our view, such a formation would have been possible on the basis of a broad anti-capitalist programme and commitment to class struggle. An essential condition for our joining, however, would have been a constitution which allowed the democratic participation of different groups, tendencies, trends, etc, on lines similar to the United Left in Spain. Unfortunately, Scargill from the outset imposed a highly centralised and extremely undemocratic constitution, which we predicted would doom the SLP to becoming a neo-Stalinist sect. This has been amply borne out by the splits in the party and the defections which took place at its recent conference in December 1997.
We certainly do not make a fetish of organisational forms. For instance, our small Brazilian section worked for a period in the PSTU (Partido Socialista de Trabalhadores Unificado), a left split-away from the PT (Partido Trabalhadores) which included in its ranks important sections of militant workers and youth. This was done of the basis of an agreement with the PSTU leadership, which was also discussed and agreed by the Committee for a Workers’ International International Executive Committee. Even though the PSTU is affiliated to another International, the LIT (Liga Internacional de Trabajadores), it was agreed that our comrades would continue as a section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, hold their own meetings, and produce a Committee for a Workers’ International bulletin.
As we have made clear in our letter (Clarification of Proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party, 2 April), we are not opposed in principle to "the unification of existing forces of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (and, as far as possible, other socialist forces) into a more tightly-knit and cohesive party structure..." (49)
What we do say, however, is that we have to be clear on the character of such a new formation. In our view, the strategy being proposed by the Scottish Executive (that is, the transformation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance into a new Scottish Socialist Party, with Scottish Militant Labour merging into it) would produce a broad organisation, not a revolutionary party. Nothing in the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s For a Bold Step Forward convinces us otherwise.
The comrades are arguing that the new formation they are proposing would be "a hybrid organisation containing elements of a revolutionary party and elements of ‘some broad formation’." (67) But, in our view, the new formation would only become a revolutionary party if the "elements of a revolutionary party" within it constituted a politically cohesive, organised Marxist tendency actively working to win the other elements to the project of building a revolutionary party, on the basis of support for a Marxist programme, commitment to building a party based on the principles of democratic unity, and affiliation to our International.
This would be viable only as a short-term strategy, as was the case with the US Trotskyists merging with the Musteite AWP. Cannon and Trotsky did not set out to build a new "hybrid" or "transitional" party. Their overriding aim was to transform the new formation into a revolutionary party as quickly as possible. They adopted the strategy because they believed that it could be carried through to success in a short period.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC’s document, however, says that there would be a "drawing together of our existing internal organisation and the Scottish Socialist Alliance" (115), that is the merging of our revolutionary forces with broader elements. Moreover, this is clearly not envisaged as a short-term strategy. The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades accept that "we are still in a preparatory period rather than a revolutionary period. Consequently, the construction of a party of socialist revolution will be a more protracted process." (40) Such a hybridisation, with the effective dissolution of our organisation into a broader, "transitional" organisation, would inevitably result in a qualitative dilution of our revolutionary tendency.
Unfortunately, unless they were actively working with the short-term strategy of transforming the new formation into a revolutionary party within a short period, the numerical predominance and experience of our comrades would not ensure the revolutionary character of the new formation. In reality, its character would to a decisive extent be determined by the broader forces involved and the need to accommodate them politically and organisationally.
The programme of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which the comrades say would be the basis of the new Scottish Socialist Party, is completely inadequate as a programme for a revolutionary Marxist party (as we will explain more fully below). Moreover, the broader forces, the Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades say, would not accept immediate affiliation to the Committee for a Workers’ International, which, in our view, reflects the political distance between ourselves and those forces, notwithstanding agreement on many immediate issues.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades also say that the merger they propose would require "an organisational compromise" (115), without explaining what they mean. But it is obvious that it would be necessary in a newly formed, broader Scottish Socialist Party to ensure the representation of various groups and even individuals coming into it, probably far in excess of their real forces and political weight. This would be a necessary tactic in the development of a broader socialist formation, but from a revolutionary point of view it would be essential for there to be the counter-balance of an organised Marxist tendency fighting to develop the new formation in a revolutionary direction.
It would be a serious mistake to believe that non-Scottish Militant Labour forces would not exert a diluting political influence in a new party, especially when electoral campaigns will be to the forefront in the next year or so. It is inevitable that centrist and left-reformist elements, even if they are currently sympathetic to a general Trotskyist position, will reflect even stronger centrist, reformist, and nationalist trends under the pressure of the events that will unfold in the next few years.
According to the laws of political genetics, the hybrid formation being proposed could have only one result: a looser, broader organisation. It is not a question of quantifying exactly how loose or how broad it would be: it simply would not be a revolutionary organisation. Yet the comrades, according to their proposals, would have dissolved our Marxist forces into a looser, broader formation, abandoning the political instrument essential to the construction of a small revolutionary party as preparation for a future mass revolutionary party.
The AWP/Muste example
Referring to the experience of the fusion between the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) and the American Workers Party (AWP) in the USA in 1934, the Scottish comrades are arguing for the idea of a transitional organisation. However, as we explained in our first reply (17 March, Members Bulletin 27), the situation in the US at that time was very different from the current situation in Scotland. The AWP may well have been a "political menagerie", but it contained within its ranks a section of the most militant industrial workers, including those responsible for the mighty Toledo Auto Lite strike and activists involved in massive unemployed workers’ struggles.
Internationally, it was a period of revolution and counter-revolution, with the approach of a new world war after the seizure of power by Hitler in 1933. In the USA itself, there was a tremendous radicalisation following the Great Depression of 1929-31 and the election of Roosevelt on his New Deal programme in 1932. A series of sit-down strikes and violent clashes with the state that prepared the way for the rise of the CIO, a mass trade union organisation of the unskilled workers which grew from around a million to 3,700,000 in less than two years.
The militant working-class ranks of the AWP were moving towards revolution, while a section of its leadership (notably Sidney Hook) were moving towards the position of the CLA and the Fourth International. The leadership of the CLA, with Trotsky’s support, took a calculated risk in fusing with the AWP because they estimated that they could quickly win the majority of its ranks to a Marxist position, not by steaming-in on the issues and hounding all opposition, but through common work and political struggle. Trotsky and Cannon insisted that the merger should take place on the basis of support for the Fourth International, and (as the comrades point out), while flexible on organisational questions, Cannon was intransigent on questions of the programme.
In 1936 the new formation (the merged CLA and AWP), the Workers Party of the US, entered the Socialist Party, whose right wing had departed. A number of former AWP leaders, including Muste, left the party. The US Trotskyists won several hundred socialist youth from the Socialist Party before their expulsion in 1937 and the founding of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. In response to explosive, fast-moving events, the US Trotskyists followed a series of essentially short-term tactics in order to win the maximum possible forces amongst workers involved in struggle.
This is very different from the present situation in Scotland. The Scottish comrades themselves make the point that conditions are not the same as in the tumultuous decades of the 1920 and 1930s (40) "We are still in a preparatory period rather than a revolutionary period. Consequently, the construction of a party of socialist revolution will be a more protracted process." (40) They also say "we are [not] on the verge of creating either a mass revolutionary party or a broad, mass socialist party in Scotland. The forces which we are working alongside and discussing with are relatively small, although not insignificant." (41)
It is not feasible, in our view, to envisage the construction of a "hybrid" or "transitional" party, combining features of a revolutionary party with those of a broader party, over a prolonged period of time. A revolutionary party has a number of essential features. There is room for flexibility of organisational form. But if the essential political features of our organisation are diluted by being merged into a broader formation then that new formation will not have the character of a revolutionary party. It is not a question of the comrades’ intentions, or of their combined knowledge and experience: it is a question of the political logic of what they are proposing.
The essential features of a revolutionary party, in our view, are the following: It must be based on a revolutionary programme; it has to be organised on the genuine principles of democratic centralism, reformulated as democratic unity; it has to combine active (non-sectarian) involvement in the class struggle with the development of Marxist cadres to form the revolutionary core of the party; and it has to be an integral part of an international revolutionary party, currently the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Depending on the conditions it operates under, a revolutionary party may be a separate organisation or it may be a distinct ‘open’ organisation within a broader formation. Another variant is that of a distinct ‘entrist’ tendency within a mass social-democratic or Stalinist party, a tactic followed under various conditions in the past but generally not applicable in this period.
The Scottish EC, however, is arguing that Scottish Militant Labour should be merged with the Scottish Socialist Alliance (115), that the entire apparatus, paper, etc, of Scottish Militant Labour should be handed over to the new Scottish Socialist Party (Initial Proposals, para 22), and that Scottish Militant Labour branches will be merged into Scottish Socialist Alliance branches - and they are arguing that the new formation will still be a revolutionary party. They say that the majority position of the existing Scottish Militant Labour leadership and its "150 years’ collective experience of the Marxist movement" will prevent any dilution of the Scottish Socialist Party’s revolutionary character. Moreover, they argue that "a core of experienced and tested Marxist activists will be capable of influencing and guiding the broad membership of this new party..." (22)
There is no justification, in our view, for the Scottish EC’s claim that our position reflects "pessimism" or "lack of confidence in the leadership of Scottish Militant Labour" (15). It is a question of a profound disagreement over strategy, where a mistake, in our view, can lead to disastrous results.
It is not a question of the intentions or the experience of Scottish Militant Labour comrades. It is a question of the political logic of what the Scottish Militant Labour EC is proposing which will inevitably emerge in the course of events. Of course, it is true that "organisational arrangements cannot by themselves guarantee that any national leadership will be up to the task posed by history". (30) Nevertheless, the essential principles of a revolutionary organisation have to be given organisational form in order to ensure that they continue to operate as the foundations of the party.
The Scottish Militant Labour EC says "our ideology is treated much more seriously than was the case in the past..." (74) "We have established our programme as the programme of the emerging left in Scotland." (55) "Taken together, all of the programmatic documents of the Scottish Socialist Alliance constitute nothing less than a detailed transitional programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers’ power, updated and applied to the concrete conditions that exist in Scotland." (60) "Within the Scottish Socialist Alliance there are now no differences of opinion on advancing a full-bloodied socialist programme." (78)
The argument of the Scottish Militant Labour EC is that the programme of the Scottish Socialist Alliance is a revolutionary programme, that the Scottish Socialist Alliance programme will be adopted by the new Scottish Socialist Party, and therefore the new Scottish Socialist Party will be a revolutionary party. We do not accept this logic.
Even if it can be assumed that the new Scottish Socialist Party, involving new forces, will virtually automatically accept the Scottish Socialist Alliance programme, that in itself will not guarantee the revolutionary character of the new party. A transitional programme drawn up for one conjuncture (as we have explained in our letter, Clarification of Proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party, 2 April, para 15) does not constitute the full programme of the revolutionary party, which is a body of ideas and the accumulated experience of the Trotskyist movement.
This is not a question of seeking to erect ideological walls for potential new recruits to jump over. But it is necessary to recognise that winning broad, new forces to a transitional programme is not the same as winning their adherence to the programme of Trotskyism.
We also made the point in our first reply that formal adherence to a socialist programme does not, in itself, guarantee consistent support in practice for Marxist policies, strategy and tactics. There is a long history in the workers’ movement of centrist leaders, who wavered between reform and revolution, formally adhering to a socialist programme while disastrously reverting to reformist policies when facing a decisive struggle.
We are not putting this forward, as the comrades claim, "as a kind of double insurance policy" (61). The point we were making was that the formal adherence of a variety of broader forces to our current programme will not ensure their continued support for our policies when they are tested by events. In the context of international affiliations, the Scottish comrades themselves say that "others in the Alliance... do not clearly understand the political differences that exists on the left internationally; nor do they understand the necessity for separate organisations which appear, at least on the surface, to have broadly similar aims and objectives." (146)
But the same point, surely, applies to some of the issues that arise in Britain and Scotland? In a revolutionary party, democratic centralism provides a unified structure for debating and resolving political issues posed by events, and for maintaining the political cohesion of the party. In a broad organisation, this is much more difficult, as past experience has demonstrated many times.
With regard to the Scottish Socialist Alliance Constitution, the Scottish Socialist Alliance Charter for Socialist Change, and the Scottish Socialist Alliance Manifesto, we do not accept, however, that they constitute the kind of "detailed transitional programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers’ power" (60) necessary for a revolutionary party.
Point 2 of the Aims and Objectives of the Constitution agreed by the Scottish Socialist Alliance Founding Conference (April 1996) states: "The Scottish Socialist Alliance stands for the socialist transformation of society". The Charter for Socialist Change (agreed by the Scottish Socialist Alliance National Council, March 1997) contains many good transitional demands, supported by propagandist arguments and agitational points. But it is hard to see how the Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades can argue that it is a rounded-out transitional programme.
Much more space, for instance, is given to environmental issues, animal rights, than to the crucial question of control of the economy. Under the heading ‘The Economy, Work, Income and Pay’, the Charter has a single paragraph on ‘The Economy’ which reads as follows: "Renationalisation of the public utilities under democratic control. Nationalise the major industrial and commercial firms, banks, insurance and finance companies.
Develop socialist planning for social need and environmental protection. Cancel the debt which is devastating house building at home and inflicting misery and famine abroad. Use the funds from the financial sector to rebuild the economy." The Charter then immediately moves on to the 35-hour week, minimum wage, welfare, and workers’ rights. There is no reference to workers’ control and management, and no mention of the demand for compensation only on the basis of proven need.
These are, of course, illustrative examples but, in our view, they indicate the Charter’s general character. Such limitations are not critical in the case of an action programme for a broad alliance. But it is quite a different thing to argue that it is a rounded-out programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers’ power.
The Charter, moreover, is predominantly a programme for Scotland. Apart from the points on self-determination in the section on ‘Scottish Self-Government’, the document makes no reference to England and Wales. The short section on Ireland is included as a ‘Discussion Document’ (although we are informed that a new policy statement has been adopted, which we have not seen). There are also short sections on Europe and Internationalism.
In the section on Europe, the Charter calls "For a new democratic, cooperative Europe. For European-wide cooperation around socialist policies that put people first. For example, for a European-wide agreement to reduce working hours and a minimum wage set to the European decency threshold." It also calls for "non-compliance with the terms of the Maastricht Treaty on EMU" and "For the building of European-wide socialist dialogue, activity and cooperation, such as support for the European March for Jobs."
The section on Internationalism is also extremely weak. It starts:
Under ‘Solidarity’, the section calls for total opposition to
The sections on ‘Aid’, ‘Debts’, and ‘Trade’, are very weak. Even allowing for the need to use popular language, the section does not highlight the key role of the working class internationally and the need for class solidarity to support struggles for the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism and for the establishment of workers’ power.
There will inevitably be weaknesses and mistakes in material produced under the pressure of events, including our own. This is one thing. The Scottish Militant Labour EC comrades, however, are arguing that the Scottish Socialist Alliance programme will be the programme of the new Scottish Socialist Party and that this will be a key factor in ensuring the revolutionary character of the new formation. But the Scottish Socialist Alliance’s programmatic statements fall far short of constituting a rounded-out Marxist programme.
The document (Bold Step, para 112) says that in the new Scottish Socialist Party "we will probably want to insist on a more clear cut policy on socialist independence, given the increasing intensity of the national question." We are not sure what this means. Does it mean that the comrades will advocate that the new Scottish Socialist Party will adopt the policy recently adopted by the Scottish Militant Labour Conference?
If "within the Scottish Socialist Alliance there are now no differences of opinion on advancing a full-bloodied socialist programme" (78), why do the comrades not support the tactic of transforming Scottish Militant Labour into a new Scottish Socialist Party, with a campaign to win the other elements in Scottish Socialist Alliance and wider forces (outlined as Option 1 in our letter)?
Moreover, if the Scottish Socialist Alliance programme is accepted as the programme of the left in Scotland, why would it not be possible for the comrades to formulate a more developed, rounded-out transitional programme as the basis for unity discussions? This would not be a question of imposing preconditions, or of "searching for issues" with potential allies, but of boldly using our political authority and track record to raise the consciousness of the forces coming into a new formation.
If, on the other hand, the Scottish comrades adopt the tactic of working in a broad new formation (Option 2), then, of course, it would be possible to accept a more limited programme for the new formation, while maintaining a rounded-out Marxist programme for our own tendency.
We consider that democratic centralism, or democratic unity, is an essential requisite of a revolutionary organisation, applied in a flexible way with the emphasis on democratic debate in this period. The Scottish Executive Committee, however, does not clearly spell out the organisational principles of a new Scottish Socialist Party, and we would like clarification.
But what kind of "organisational compromise" do the comrades envisage? A compromise would undoubtedly reflect political differences on questions of party structure: what are the arguments likely to be? (Unfortunately, the statement in the more recent Scottish Militant Labour EC’s proposals that the "idea of democratic unity" will be incorporated into the constitution of a new Scottish Socialist Party, without going into the specific structures, does not answer these questions.)
The document says that the Scottish comrades would
Would this be based on democratic centralism? If not, how will "unity in action" be achieved?
Correctly rejecting the "monolithic type of structure" of the SLP, the comrades say
According to the proposals in the Scottish Militant Labour EC’s Initial Proposals for a New Scottish Socialist Party, there was no definite proposal for our tendency to continue to exist with a clear political identity, a democratic structure, and resources (apparatus, full-timers, journal, etc) of its own.
In our letter of 2 April (para 18) we asked for clarification of what resources the Scottish Militant Labour EC would propose for our tendency within a broader Scottish Socialist Party. The Scottish Militant Labour EC document (49) refers to "the unification of the existing forces of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (and, as far as possible, other socialist forces) into a more tightly-knit and cohesive party structure", and calls for "the redirection of our existing apparatus towards the single-minded task of building such a party." (49)
But how can our comrades dedicate themselves to the "single-minded" task of building "such a party" when the new formation will, in reality, be a broad party, and not a revolutionary party? Our comrades would still have the task of building a revolutionary tendency within it. (Again, the more detailed proposals now produced by the Scottish Militant Labour EC do not, in our view, provide the basis for the strengthening of our tendency in Scotland or lay the basis for a viable section of the Committee for a Workers’ International.)
"We would also insist," says the Scottish Militant Labour EC document, "on a proper branch structure which provided political education and co-ordinated campaigns, recruitment, fund-raising, etc." (Bold Step, 113) This is building up the party, but it is not the same as building a core of cadres who have thoroughly assimilated the ideas and methods of the revolutionary organisation, and are themselves capable of independent intervention in the class struggle, taking initiatives, and themselves recruiting new forces to revolutionary ideas.
Developing a core of revolutionary cadres is not primarily an organisational task, but fundamentally a political task, which requires a cohesive ideological core to the party. At the same time, revolutionary ideas have to be translated in a practical way into consistent organisational practices.
The Scottish comrades accept that "our internal structures have been affected by ‘the enormous demands of campaigning activity, election campaigns and so on’." (86) But this problem will not simply be overcome by merging two organisations into one. It requires a conscious approach to party-building and the development of cadres.