Twenty years ago, amid the seemingly diminishing shadow of Stalinism, qualitative rightward shifts by social-democratic parties and the emergence of new left-wing parties, there was a lively debate about these new formations and how revolutionaries should relate to them.1 History has not been kind to those who engaged in overblown hype of the possibilities offered by these parties while downplaying the dangers of reformism within them.2
Joseph Choonara’s “Revolutionaries and elections”, which was published in International Socialism 179, is an important contribution to a European balance sheet of the experience of revolutionaries participating in broader parties and electoral work over the past two decades.3 He correctly points to the opportunist pressure generated by engaging in electoral work as well as by the persistence of reformist consciousness, listing examples of the many failures of the broader parties that were once pointed to as models for the European and international left.
However, Choonara’s assessment is almost entirely negative. The lessons he draws for today are stark, for instance, downplaying any suggestion of revolutionaries participating in a hypothetical Jeremy Corbyn-led break from the British Labour Party. Instead, he emphasises the importance of simply building an independent revolutionary party.
This approach seems equivalent to someone listing all of the people who have drowned and concluding that it is best to avoid getting in the water. A cheap response would be to list all of the revolutionary groups that did not participate seriously in electoral work or broader parties over the last two decades. Many of these have not exactly prospered either.
Instead of taking that easy route, I want to rebalance Choonara’s assessment and make an argument against a retreat from broad parties and electoral work. There is an alternative: to learn to swim. Revolutionary socialists should participate in elections and broader formations with their eyes wide open to the pitfalls and dangers present, while also seeking to take advantage of the opportunities they also contain.
My argument is grounded in a view that Marxists have a dual task today, because we are confronted with a triple crisis of working-class consciousness, organisation and leadership.4 We must seek to help redevelop an advanced layer of the working class in terms of both consciousness and organisation and, at the same time, we must build an organised revolutionary socialist force. These are interconnected tasks.
If we throw ourselves into building the wider movement without sufficiently assembling and educating Marxist forces, we will be failing to build instruments sharp enough to take on and defeat the capitalist class. On the other hand, if we focus solely on our own revolutionary organisations, on recruitment and on education of our members—without also struggling to redevelop broader organisations of working-class people such as trade unions and mass parties—then we will be left with isolated small sects.
In responding to Choonara, I want to separate out two issues that are intertwined within his argument: revolutionaries operating in broader parties and revolutionaries participating in elections. Engaging in elections seems to be the predominant reason that Choonara believes revolutionaries should consider participation in broader formations. Nevertheless, there are lots of non-electoral reasons for taking part in such parties. Participation in a broader party may be the best strategy to help to reconstitute the wider workers’ movement and simultaneously build a Marxist organisation.
In assessing participation in broad parties, a purely quantitative measure (the question, “have the Marxists increased or decreased their membership through the experience?”) is insufficient. Of course, growing our membership is essential—it will take mass revolutionary parties to overthrow capitalism. However, it is not sufficient. Members who have engaged in mass politics, can speak to broad layers of the population and are practised in challenging reformist ideas are vital to building a cadre that will be able to put forward a Marxist analysis not just in small rooms but also at mass meetings, strikes and protests.
Elections as a crucial arena
For too many on the socialist left, the practice, if not the theory, of Marxist engagement goes no further than Lenin’s description of parliamentary activity as the “lowest form of struggle”.5 This formulation is fine as a general guideline—an assertion of the greater emphasis socialists should place on self-activity by the working class, whether through trade unions, social movements or community campaigns. This sentiment is even better as an aid to licking your wounds after a bad election result. However, it is not much use beyond that. In fact, it is not even an accurate summary of Lenin’s views. The phrase itself comes from an article in which Lenin is making an argument not for downgrading elections, but rather for putting a greater focus on them.
Important work has been done recently by August Nimtz, a Marxist political scientist in the United States, in uncovering the extensive scale of Lenin’s writings about elections.6 Sean Mitchell’s Lenin, Elections and Socialist Hegemony is both a popularisation and a development of this work. Mitchell goes beyond revolutionary socialists’ traditional emphasis on elections and parliamentary seats as a “platform” to spread socialist ideas, putting forward an understanding of elections as a “crucial arena for the forging of the ‘general will’: for the development of an independent class politics and the construction of an irreconcilably revolutionary socialist counter-hegemony”.7
Elections are important. They are not important because parliamentary elections are how socialism will be won, but rather because they are at the centre of how most working people currently think change can happen. We may wish this was not the case; we would prefer that we had a situation of mass struggle and general strikes, within which it would be evident that workers’ power can secure fundamental change outside of parliament and elections. Right now, however, there is a generally low level of consciousness and struggle. In these circumstances it is clear that elections sit at the centre of how politics is perceived by the majority of working-class people.
I would, however, go even further. I argue it is likely that, in countries with established parliamentary traditions, elections will remain very important even amid a significant upsurge in struggle and consciousness. Take the example of Greece, which saw 33 general strikes between 2010 and 2015. Mass social movements arose around a wide variety of issues—from campaigns against road tolls to the movement of the squares. Despite all this, elections were still very much crucial in people’s understanding of how radical change could take place.
The radical left-wing Syriza party’s open advocacy for a united left government was a crucial part of its rise from less than five percent to 27 percent in just three years.8 Syriza’s failure to deliver the change it promised speaks to a failure of reformism in general and the policy of left-wing Europeanism in particular.9 Yet, it neither contradicts nor undermines the fundamental importance of elections.
If we want to have a dialogue with a broad mass of people, engaging in elections is an important way to do it. Even better is winning elections, which results in revolutionary local and parliamentary representatives who can use their seats as a platform from which to help organise struggle and popularise socialist ideas.
Does taking elections bring serious dangers? Absolutely. Choonara is not wrong to point out that elections are a difficult terrain for revolutionaries. At the next general election, Ireland’s ecosocialist party, People Before Profit—which I represent in the Dáil, the Irish parliament—faces a significant challenge from, on the one hand, the momentum of Sinn Féin, and, on the other hand, the relative passivity of the working class over the past few years.
Elections devour energy. They exert a directly opportunist impulse, because saying the principled thing may result in a loss of votes. They also exert an organisational pressure to downgrade the vital work of Marxist education and discussion in favour of winning votes. Choonara gives a good example of this when he writes about branch meetings of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain being shut down to “free up” its members for electoral work during the period, around the turn of the millennium, when it was active in the Socialist Alliance.10
Still, any serious mass work involves dangers and pressures towards opportunism. That goes for trade union work and social movement campaigning as well as elections. As soon as you have a position of authority, you come under opportunist pressures. These come both directly from the capitalist class, through institutions such as parliament and the mainstream media, as well as indirectly, through working-class people who are yet to break with the “common sense” of capitalist ideology and all that goes with it.
However, avoiding this work is no answer. Instead, the answer must be to build revolutionary organisations that are capable of withstanding these pressures, aided by collective leadership and independently thinking memberships that can hold to account those individuals who are under the most intense pressure to succumb to opportunism.
Broad parties are inevitable—should you participate?
A strong point in Choonara’s article is his emphasis on the persistence of reformist consciousness. The idea that the crisis faced by social-democratic parties marked the end of reformist ideas resulted in disorientation and strategic blunders. It is correct to say, for example, that the main problem for the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA; Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) in France was the emergence of the reformist projects of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the NPA’s failure to adequately relate to this new phenomenon.
Yet, if Choonara is right about the persistence of reformism, which can continue even when the capitalist system faces deep crisis, then surely various types of reformist ideas are likely to be a first step for many people who undergo radicalisation. Parties within which reformist and centrist ideas are influential, or even dominant, are likely to emerge from such processes.
For Choonara, the betrayals of promises by Syriza and Podemos appear to be proof that revolutionaries were wrong to attempt to do work inside such formations. However, Marxists can both understand that betrayal is inherent to reformism and appreciate the powerful effect of what Leon Trotsky termed a “creative illusion” (in this case, the illusion that changing society may be as easy as a mass reformist party winning a parliamentary majority) in bringing people into political activity.11 The question is whether Marxists can engage in a principled way in these parties and grow, qualitatively as well as quantitatively, from their experience within them.
The experience of Anticapitalistas, a group linked to the Fourth International in the Spanish state, points to the possibilities. Its decision to help to found the radical left-wing Podemos formation was a bold one. However, Anticapitalistas correctly left Podemos when the party entered a capitalist government with the Spanish state’s traditional social-democratic organisation, the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español; PSOE). As Anticapitalistas itself admits, it made mistakes along the way—centrally, the error of underestimating the potential for the rapid “Bonapartisation” of Podemos under leader Pablo Iglesias through the media.12 Nonetheless, Anticapitalistas grew numerically, in public profile, in their youth work and in experienced cadre through the process.
In a sense, Corbynism was a uniquely British phenomenon, with the search for a left-wing alternative by new layers of socialists taking place through Labour, a traditional social-democratic party. Yet, it was a still particular national expression of a generalised process—an attempt to form political instruments to serve the interests of working-class people. This is a process that takes different forms in different countries, often reflecting the peculiarities of their electoral systems and national political traditions.
The varying new left-wing, semi-mass formations—from the Democratic Socialists of America in the US to Die Linke (“The Left”) in Germany, and from the Red Green Alliance in Denmark to the Party for Socialism and Freedom (known as PSOL; Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) in Brazil—have different strengths and weaknesses. None of them are revolutionary parties. However, by and large, they are parties within which revolutionaries should participate while simultaneously attempting to build Marxist organisations—both independently and through this work in a larger formation.
Incidentally, multiple tendencies operate within all these parties. Choonara, seemingly reflecting the traditional opposition of the Socialist Workers Party to “permanent factions” (apparently meaning factions lasting longer than the three months before the annual party conference) appears to consider this as a negative. Yet, it is absolutely inevitable that there will be different trends of opinion within genuinely broad parties. If these different trends are not facilitated through organised political expression—networks, caucuses or platforms—they will express themselves in much less healthy ways: cliques and leadership groupings.
The independence of revolutionaries
Running through Choonara’s article is the implicit suggestion that, in order to build a revolutionary organisation, it is (almost always) necessary to be organised externally to any broad non-revolutionary party. Yet, why should this be the case?
It is clearly necessary for revolutionaries to be politically independent of non-revolutionary formations. It is necessary to have our own structures, within which revolutionaries can discuss among themselves on the basis of a common Marxist conception of the world and shared broad strategic approaches. It is necessary to have our own dynamic of political education and to seek to train Marxist cadre. It is also necessary to have the capacity to intervene energetically and independently when this is called for by the situation.
However, revolutionaries can do all these things while also being members of broader parties. Exactly what that looks like depends on the circumstances. In the Democratic Socialists of America, it is in the form of a caucus such as Reform and Revolution.13 In People Before Profit it is in the form of networks like RISE and the Socialist Workers Network. Within the British Labour Party, during the 1980s, it was the Militant Tendency, which publicly declared it was only a newspaper even though all of its members and opponents knew that it was a revolutionary organisation.
This is not to glibly slide over the question—to say we can both eat our cake and still have it. There are complications. There are tensions. There are pressures that reflect themselves in a million different organisational and tactical issues.
Clearly, all of these scenarios also involve different practices. Being an entryist in a bureaucratic social-democratic party is fundamentally different from being part of a network within a democratic ecosocialist party such as People Before Profit. The former involves operating in clearly hostile territory; the latter means operating on friendly terrain, with much shared ground across networks, open discussion of politics and the joint building of the project.
In any case, you can get the benefit of swimming in a bigger pool—learning from the act of rebuilding the workers’ movement politically and getting training as revolutionaries. Previously, Alex Callinicos argued for precisely this approach, stating, “It is right to build the radical left on a broad and open basis, but within the resulting formations revolutionary socialists should organise and fight for their own policies”.14
We need mass revolutionary parties. However, it is not a straight line from small groups of committed revolutionaries to mass parties. In the process of the redevelopment of a substantial vanguard layer within the working class, it is likely that significant new left-wing parties will be built. Within these organisations, reformist ideas will probably have a considerable presence or even a heavy preponderance.
In many countries struggle within those broader parties, together with participation in the trade unions and broader social movements, will be an important part of building substantial revolutionary parties. Given the crisis-ridden state of capitalism, in contrast to its boom period after the Second World War, these parties will not be stable formations like social democracy was in the past. Serious splits from these parties may provide important forces for the building of mass revolutionary parties.
People Before Profit
Where does the formation of which I am a part, People Before Profit, stand in all this? A 2022 article by John Molyneux, which Choonara draws from, is an accurate description of the current character of People Before Profit—an organisation that is led by revolutionaries and has modest but real implantation in the Irish working class.15 It is also fair to say that Molyneux’s conclusion—that People Before Profit is a “transitional organisation”—leaves perhaps as many questions as answers.
It would be a mistake for revolutionaries within People Before Profit to assume that we are safe from the pressure of reformism because the leadership lies in the hands of “avowed revolutionaries”. The history of the socialist movement is littered with the experience of avowed revolutionaries acting as anything but revolutionaries.
There is no question that People Before Profit experiences the opportunist pressure of which Choonara warns. Sharp debates within the parliamentary group and in the leadership took place around the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and during the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The slogan “Fighting for Workers and Ecosocialism” was adopted after a lively debate at the 2022 annual general meeting. Engaging in a popular but principled way with the mood for an alternative government led by Sinn Féin is the central challenge facing us today.
However, compared with most of the broad formations mentioned above, People Before Profit has taken consistently principled positions, informed by Marxism, on the key issues that have emerged—including, most recently, the Israeli onslaught against Gaza.
As it is currently constituted, People Before Profit is not a revolutionary formation. As an organisation it does not consciously educate people to be Marxists—it is broader than that. Its internal life is not that of a revolutionary party; it has an emphasis on activism over education, though this imbalance is partially compensated for by the presence of the three revolutionary networks within the party (the Socialist Workers Network, RISE and the Red Network).
The future character of People Before Profit is undetermined and may be shaped by objective factors largely beyond our control. Currently, the space for a large ecosocialist party is restricted by the presence of Sinn Féin, which is a dominant parliamentary force and is seen as leading opposition from the left to the Irish government.
If Sinn Féin enters government and then inevitably betrays its supporter base by simply managing capitalism, greater space may open up. We could be presented with the possibility of either a broader and much larger People Before Profit, likely with an organised and coherent reformist pole, or an entirely new initiative with a significant reformist wing.
People Before Profit is not a model that can simply be exported internationally. There are particular features of the Irish political landscape and Ireland’s left that were necessary conditions for the organisation to arise and develop into what it currently is. These include the Irish electoral system, which is based on proportional representation, as well as the historical weakness of both Stalinism and the Labour Party as a political currents in Ireland, and the relatively substantial presence of Trotskyism.
However, there are some lessons that will travel well. One is the notion of revolutionaries engaging in mass work in a principled manner. The choice does not have to be between isolated revolutionary purity and mass reformist work. Revolutionaries can engage in mass work, touching the lives and struggles of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
Marxists, from both the Committee for a Workers’ International and International Socialist Tendency traditions, have repeatedly led mass struggles in Ireland. Some highlights include: the successful struggle against water charges in the 1990s, which led to the 1997 election of Joe Higgins as a Socialist Party TD (member of parliament) in the Dáil, demonstrating to the rest of the revolutionary left that electoral success was possible; the Irish Anti-War Movement, led primarily by the Socialist Workers Party (the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Workers Network), which put over 100,000 people on the streets on 15 February 2003; and the successful mass movement, beginning in 2014, against a renewed attempt to impose water charges, with repeated mobilisations of 100,000 people and a non-payment rate of 73 percent.
Each of these mass campaigns contributed to electoral breakthroughs for the socialist left. In turn, parliamentary positions were used in an extremely effective manner to help organise these movements. In practice, mass extra-parliamentary struggle led by the revolutionary left had a symbiotic relationship to our electoral campaigns, rather than the two being opposed to each other.
Of course, these campaigns, and the electoral work that has gone alongside them, have created real pressures. During the debates within the Socialist Party that resulted in the formation of RISE, the Socialist Party’s leadership argued that too much mass work had resulted in a loss of focus on building a revolutionary party. Although this assessment contained an element of truth, it understated the positive consequences of mass work, which both assisted in the reorganisation of our class and the training of revolutionaries in how to put our ideas into practice.
In the aftermath of the water charges struggle, the Socialist Party retreated from mass work. It effectively wound up Solidarity, a broader formation, led by the Socialist Party, that had some parallels to People Before Profit. In contrast, the Socialist Workers Network decided to continue to put an emphasis on building People Before Profit. Consequentially, despite Solidarity (called the Anti-Austerity Alliance until 2017) having a higher profile than People Before Profit during the anti-water charges movement, People Before Profit is now very clearly the dominant force on the Irish radical left.
Rosa Luxemburg argued:
The proletariat requires a high degree of political education, class-consciousness and organisation. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.16
The same applies to Marxists. Principled mass work is an indispensable part of developing revolutionary cadre. It must be married with Marxist education and democratic internal discussion.
Revolutionaries need to act as revolutionaries
Another lesson is that revolutionaries need to act as revolutionaries. Of course, the pressure to not do so is great. I can only imagine the pressure to put forward reformist politics that bears down on Die Linke members of the German parliament. Yet, it is not only in broader parties and elected positions that these pressures are brought to bear on people. Any serious mass work outside of revolutionary moments brings significant pressures towards opportunism. The boldest Marxist in their revolutionary group’s branch meetings may appear as a bog-standard reformist when chairing or speaking at a major united front event.
Of course, as activists we often wear different hats. We might be shop stewards and union activists, convenors of local campaigns or political representatives of a broader party. Precisely how we present our arguments may change. Fundamentally, however, as revolutionaries we should act and speak as revolutionaries. We cannot self-censor and limit ourselves to reformism in any of these capacities. Instead, in all of these role, we should be seeking to raise people’s horizons towards a recognition of the need for socialist change.
Failing to do so is not only politically dishonest—it is corrosive. Ultimately, social being determines consciousness; if your activist life involves putting forward Keynesian, reformist or pacifist arguments, you are likely to become a reformist in spite of your membership of a revolutionary party. Even more importantly, the party members who listen to you will not be trained in making principled socialist arguments in public.
Choonara’s article argues that revolutionaries must be open about their socialist politics, but it also suggests that they should stand for election on a “‘minimum programme’, advocating mass workers’ struggle to achieve far-reaching reforms that begin to push against the logic of the capitalist system”.17
Perhaps this is only a semantic difference, but I would argue that revolutionaries should seek to stand on a socialist programme. That would include both elements of a “minimum programme”—a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations, repeal of anti-trade union laws and so on—as well as transitional demands that do not simply push against the logic of the capitalist system, but go beyond it and involve open advocacy and popularisation of socialist change. These might include democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy and withdrawal from imperialist alliances such as NATO.
Revolutionaries and Corbynism
Finally, I will pass some comments on Corbynism, although these are made with an acknowledgement of my distance from the subject. Corbynism was undoubtedly an exciting phenomenon. Literally hundreds of thousands of predominantly young left-wing people joined the Labour Party to support Corbyn, and a minority of those became activists.18 Tens of thousands attended rallies in support of Corbyn’s election campaigns, and Labour branches were filled out.
If anyone thought that this was chiefly a sideshow from the social movements and industrial struggles taking place outside the Labour Party, it is fair to say that Britain’s political and economic establishment thought about it very differently. That establishment waged an all-out war to undermine and ultimately oust Corbyn. The weakness of Corbyn’s reformist politics, and the reformist politics of those surrounding him, contributed significantly to his own downfall.
If it were possible for revolutionary socialists to join the Labour Party at the time of the Corbyn surge in membership, should they not have seized that opportunity? They could have defended Corbyn from the party’s right while pointing to the limitations of his politics—both his reformism and his related failure to decisively challenge the Labour Party’s right wing. They could have directed new members of Labour towards participation in struggle outside of the party as well as the fight within it.
Choonara correctly points out that there has been “no substantive organised break with Labourism following Corbynism”.19 Yet, the hundreds of thousands of people who joined the Labour Party in order to support Corbyn’s radical vision have been deeply disenchanted by the counter-revolution led by current party leader Keir Starmer. Indeed, huge numbers have apparently now dropped out of the Labour Party.20
However, Choonara treats the prospect of Corbyn breaking from the Labour Party as a matter without considerable significance. His advice is that revolutionaries should “offer support to and campaign for credible left-wing candidates as an independent detachment of revolutionary socialists, not with the main goal of forming a common organisation with reformists directed primarily towards electoral work”.21
He warns of the danger of serious electoral work becoming a substitute for “other important forms of activity, particularly developing embryonic rank and file initiatives in the strike movement and combating the threat of racism and the far right”.22 Is this not a false counterposition?
Were a Corbyn-led break from Labour to become electorally successful, this would likely give an impetus to the trade union and social movements, with a rise in confidence spurring them on. Crucially, for Marxists, it would allow direct engagement and joint work in a common party with thousands, if not tens of thousands of left-wing activists. It would be an opportunity to show in practice the superiority of revolutionary ideas over reformism.
Of course, it would have been much better if Corbyn had taken such a step at many different points in the past four years. However, if Corbyn is willing to launch an independent party and to campaign with others in advance of the next election, this would be a genuinely exciting prospect. It would be more than merely an electoral project; it could perhaps also be a space for tens of thousands of people who were politicised by the Corbyn phenomenon, allowing them to regroup, to remain active and to learn.
If revolutionaries have the chance to be in at the ground floor, with the right to maintain their organisation and publications and to argue for their politics, would it not make sense to do so? It is hard to avoid thinking that having been burned by the experience of working with George Galloway in the ill-fated Respect party, the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party is in danger of missing an opportunity.
Yet, Corbyn, for all his flaws, is not Galloway. His left-reformist politics are consistent, and he has a long record of opposing oppression. That is not to say that there would be no tensions and conflicts with Corbyn in a joint party. Such fissures would be rooted in the difference between the strategies of reform and revolution and in the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism as it declines towards barbarism.
Such a project would contain dangers for any revolutionary forces involved. It would undoubtedly be more straightforward to continue building an independent revolutionary party. Nonetheless, if we are to succeed in assembling the trained Marxist forces required to overthrow capitalism, we will need to be able to navigate these treacherous waters. We have to amass organisations capable of engaging in broad parties and serious electoral work, while simultaneously withstanding the opportunist pressures that they bring.
Paul Murphy TD is a member of the Irish parliament for People Before Profit and part of the RISE network.
1 Some of the key works in this debate include: Rees, 2002; Smith, 2003; Smith, 2004; Callinicos, 2004; and Sabado, 2004.
2 During this debate, Murray Smith, a key member of the Scottish Socialist Party, consistently downplayed the importance of the distinction between revolutionaries and reformists. He argued, for instance, against the idea of an “inevitable polarisation between revolutionaries and reformists” within broad parties. See Smith, 2004.
3 Choonara, 2023.
4 For further reading on the concept of the “dual task”, see Ní Cheallaigh and Murphy, 2020; MORE: Marxists Organising for Revolutionary Ecosocialism, 2023.
5 Lenin, 1974.
6 Nimtz, 2019.
7 Mitchell, 2021, p75.
8 Syriza received 4.6 percent in the legislative elections of October 2009. This rose to 16.8 percent in May 2012 and 36.3 percent in the January 2015 elections, after which Syriza formed a government.
9 Murphy, 2016.
10 Choonara, 2023, p61.
11 For an illuminating engagement with the notion of “creative illusion”, particularly in relation to the US Socialist Workers Party’s support for the so-called Ludlow Amendment (which would have made any declaration of war by Congress dependent on a national referendum), see Breitman, 1975.
12 Garí, 2020.
13 See https://reformandrevolution.org
14 Callinicos, 2008.
15 Molyneux, 2022.
16 Luxembourg, 1925.
17 Choonara, 2023.
18 Whiteley, Poletti and others, 2019.
19 Choonara, 2023, p49.
20 In August 2023, The Independent reported that the Labour Party had lost 125,000 members since the last general election—see Stone, 2023.
21 Choonara, 2023, p77.
22 Choonara, 2023, p77.