Swimming, waving and drowning: a response to Paul Murphy

Issue: 182

Joseph Choonara

I welcome Paul Murphy’s response to my recent article on revolutionaries and elections.1 Murphy is a superb socialist member of the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, where he represents the People Before Profit (PBP) formation, in which members of Socialist Workers Network also participate. So, he knows a thing or two about the topic. My piece aimed to encourage constructive engagement of precisely this kind.2

Murphy and I are in agreement on several points. It is true, as he says, that revolutionaries who abstained from electoral work often fared as badly as, or worse than, those who participated. As my article suggested, the instinct to seek to fill the gap to the left of rightward moving social democracy was a good one. The most creative and outgoing revolutionary currents across Europe tended to engage in such projects, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain. It is also true that revolutionary socialists should avoid abstentionism towards elections, a position rightly criticised by Lenin over a century ago.3 Given the discontent in Britain over Keir Starmer’s stewardship of the Labour Party, the SWP is currently engaged in intensive discussions on this topic.

There are, however, two areas of tension between Murphy and me. The first is over the specificities of electoral work and what it means for revolutionaries seeking to work with reformists. The second relates to Murphy’s comments on the Labour Party in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn. I will start with this second point because I think it reflects a misunderstanding of the situation and is relatively straightforward to address. This leads naturally to a discussion of the deeper issue.

Corbyn’s Labour

As I argue in my original article, Corbynism represented the emergence of a left reformism that took the peculiar form of a radicalisation within a (previously rightward moving) social-democratic party. Murphy asks:

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.4

A few small Trotskyist groups did join Labour around this time, and some were already inside. The gains from such an approach appear to have been negligible. That might have been different had the SWP, at least an order of magnitude bigger than such groups, joined. However, Murphy’s point is moot because there was no prospect whatsoever of the SWP taking a couple of thousand organised revolutionaries into Labour while retaining an independent organisation and strategy, something Murphy agrees is indispensable.5 Not only do Labour’s rules explicitly exclude this but even the fantasy of SWP infiltration was enough to induce a panicked reaction from Labour politicians.6 One group that did seek to join was the Socialist Party. In its former incarnation, the Militant Tendency, it had been expelled from Labour in the 1980s, but it remains committed in principle to long-term entryism in broader social-democratic parties.7 Its self-styled “struggle to transform Labour” was as brief as it was unsuccessful. Clandestine entryism might, I suppose, have been possible, but hardly conducive to building the wider extra-parliamentary struggles in which the SWP aspires to provide leadership.

The SWP did seek to engage with Momentum, which Murphy does not mention but which initially presented itself as a broader organisation extending beyond Labour while still linked to Corbynism. However, it quickly became clear that the function of Momentum would be to channel supporters into electoral work, and it soon ceased to provide a space for discussions that included non-Labour members. Indeed, early in its history, Momentum-supporting left MPs explicitly sought to restrict the SWP from participating.8 By January 2017, the chair of Momentum’s steering committee, Jon Lansman, had launched a coup to counter hard-left influence in the group and ban non-Labour members from participating altogether.

Murphy suggests that, should Corbyn eventually proclaim his candidature as a left-wing rival to the Labour Party in the forthcoming general election, the SWP should go further than simply welcoming this development and campaigning for his victory. Our aim, Murphy argues, should be to create an organisation drawing together revolutionaries and reformists. Undoubtedly, such an organisation could attract large numbers of left-wing activists, and, he says, any resulting discussions would “be rooted in the difference between the strategies of reform and revolution”.9 Though I certainly hope Corbyn does stand, and calls on others to do so too, he has been remarkably slow to evince any sign of wanting to construct an organisation to the left of Labour or contribute to the debates over political representation now raging due to Starmer’s support for Israel’s genocidal attack on the Palestinians. Opportunities to do so have come and gone.

If the creation of such an organisation does become a genuine possibility, the SWP would have to debate what this means for us. Yet, we would have to discuss this question both in light of the experiences of the past 25 years and our wider understanding of electoralism. That was the whole point of my article. Let me now clarify a few points on this broader question in response to Murphy.

The goal of revolutionaries

Although some of our disagreements reflect different readings of the recent experiences of the revolutionary left, there does appear to be a more general strategic and theoretical difference. This is probably rooted in the political training Murphy and I received, respectively, in the traditions of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and the International Socialist Tendency (IST).10 Organisations linked to the CWI have tended to emphasise the possibility of long-term entryism. As I explain in my original article, this reflects both their expectation that a sharp rise in class struggle would lead working-class people to transform parties to which they have traditionally looked for representation, such as Labour, and their belief that a transition to socialism might be initiated by nationalising large corporations through a parliamentary vote.11

We have long rejected these propositions. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein write in their discussion of the 1919 upheavals in Britain, the closest Britain came to revolution in the 20th century: “There is a theory stating that, when workers move in a revolutionary direction, they will turn to the Labour Party and remake it. The year of 1919 proved this to be arrant nonsense. Even the most left-wing section—the Independent Labour Party—stood entirely on the sidelines… Indeed, the Labour Party was totally irrelevant as an organisation”.12

Murphy’s claim that “participation in a broader party may be the best strategy to help to reconstitute the wider workers’ movement and simultaneously build a Marxist organisation” sounds quite close to the traditional CWI perspective.13 He also seems to regard the experience of the Militant Tendency in Britain’s Labour Party in the 1980s as a successful model, a view from which I must dissent.14

The differences in outlook here have significant implications. In my view, constructing a revolutionary current within a mass party of the left in the expectation that it will radicalise under the pressure of struggle is insufficient. Rather, the objective to which our tactics must be subordinated is the building of an independent mass revolutionary party.15 This is absolutely not an argument for party-building in abstraction from mass movements, as Murphy seems to think.16 The SWP has repeatedly shown its willingness to participate in, lead and initiate wider struggles, as well as its readiness to engage in united fronts with reformist forces. Our involvement in movements in solidarity with the Palestinian people, in anti-fascist and anti-racist activity, and in the recent British strike wave furnishes plenty of evidence for this. Yet, electoral work is not simply another field of struggle that can be approached in a similar manner to these examples; rather, it has specific implications for revolutionary socialists and the organisations in which they participate, and these require deeper consideration.

The specificity of elections

Murphy himself points to one of the specific issues with elections: “Elections sit at the centre of how politics is perceived by the majority of working-class people”.17 Quite so, and that is, as he says, why revolutionaries should not abstain from work in the electoral arena, right up to the point where revolutionary insurrection comes on to the agenda.

However, the fact that workers look to elections and parliament is not simply part of an undifferentiated “reformist consciousness”, and fighting elections cannot be seen as simply one other arena of revolutionary activity. Let us compare elections with the wider struggles in which workers participate. Revolutionaries, as Murphy and I agree, should fight for reforms alongside reformist workers—for better pay and conditions, to defeat racist legislation, to stop imperialist wars, and so on. In such struggles, revolutionaries should advance tactics that allow workers to win in the most thoroughgoing manner. When won through mass struggle, the resulting victories tend to increase the confidence, organisation and combativity of the working class, as well as facilitating the deeper implantation of revolutionary organisation within that class.

Although there can be moments in which left-wing electoral upsurges disrupt the normal functioning of politics, and elections fuse with broader social and political struggles, this is far from the norm. Quite often, more moderate tactics are superior if the goal is to win elected office. Moreover, winning office, though providing an important platform for the left, does not automatically persuade workers to use their collective strength to push for wider reforms. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect, convincing them that reform “from above”, through the existing state, rather than “from below” is a more viable approach. The greater the success of electoral work, the greater these pressures tend to become.

Again, this is not an argument against electoral work; it is merely to spell out what makes electoral politics particularly complex for revolutionaries. These problems are amplified if revolutionaries decide to focus on constructing an organisation containing revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries that contests elections. If a revolutionary party does badly at the polls, its members will hopefully recognise that the world is not transformed through this mechanism; it is far harder to retain reformists in an electoral organisation if it repeatedly gets hammered in elections. They will simply leave and join an organisation that is better at winning votes, usually because it has a less principled and more moderate programme—or they will seek to marginalise the revolutionaries in their existing organisation.

Similarly, for revolutionaries, it is relatively simple to seek election to parliament while also using elections and parliamentary platforms to argue that real change comes from extra-parliamentary struggle, as Lenin advocated.18 In a joint organisation, this is a more difficult position to maintain. Sadly, things are not so simple as saying that such organisations can engage in both electoral and non-electoral activity. There is always the question of which area of activity takes precedence and thus disciplines the other. As the examples I gave in my original article show, when socialists have advocated for a twin-track approach of this kind, they have tended to find, over time, that electoral work takes precedence over their wider activity, absorbing time, attention, money and other resources.

Even in a revolutionary organisation, such as that of the Bolsheviks in the run-up to 1917, Lenin took care to subordinate electoral activity to the wider struggle of the working class. He generalised this advice in the context of his polemic against electoral abstention, which was aimed at newly radicalised revolutionaries across Europe: “The action of the masses—a big strike, for instance—is more important than parliamentary activity at all times”.19

History matters

The specific problems that emerge on the electoral terrain explain why the history I documented in my original article, demonstrating how these tensions play out, matters. My approach is not a result, as Murphy suggests, of being burnt by our experience with the maverick MP George Galloway in the Respect electoral coalition.20 The question I wanted to ask was whether that specific experience was simply or even primarily a result of Galloway’s well-known idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. It seems to me that the problem is not reducible to that.

Consider the case of Die Linke (The Left) in Germany. Here you have a party formed on a much more favourable basis, involving a break from the country’s main social-democratic party and the creation of a new left-wing formation in which revolutionaries were granted a fair degree of independence to organise. Indeed, this replicates aspects of the hypothetical Corbyn-led breakaway from the Labour Party about which Murphy speculates. The central figure in the German case, Oskar Lafontaine was a weighty figure on the left of social democracy, and a far less quixotic one than Galloway. Nonetheless, the outcome has been dismal, with revolutionaries becoming disoriented through their long-term participation in a left-reformist organisation and the Marx21 group suffering a profound crisis, splitting three ways.21 Murphy mentions Die Linke a couple of times, but he does not explain why revolutionary socialists who participated in the formation are facing their present troubles and what they ought to have done differently.

Similarly, he mentions Greek organisation Syriza and points out that its failure was due to “reformism in general and the policy of left-wing Europeanism in particular”. Yet, this does not really answer the question of how revolutionary socialists should relate to such organisations. Indeed, there were anti-capitalists within Syriza who rejected the “Europeanism” of the party’s leader, Aléxis Tsípras, and his co-thinkers. Why were these forces so ineffectual?

Murphy agrees with me that the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA; Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) in France failed to adequately respond to the challenges it faced from the various rival left-reformist formations led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Why, though, does he think the NPA failed in this way? Was it simply a flaw in the thinking of the experienced Trotskyists in the Revolutionary Communist League (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) who established the NPA?

There seems to be a tacit understanding that revolutionaries within PBP have developed an approach capable of overcoming these sorts of problems, although Murphy is far too intelligent a socialist to assume that it is inevitable that his organisation continues to thrive. The rise of PBP partly reflects a favourable situation in Ireland, up to now, for the emergence of a significant radical left-wing party in which revolutionaries can play a hegemonic role.22 It is to the credit of comrades in Ireland that they have taken advantage of this situation. As Murphy acknowledges, Sinn Féin is now putting considerable pressure on that model, threatening to reduce the number of PBP’s members in the Dáil after the next election. I am pleased that PBP has not suffered the kind of implosion that the NPA did under similar pressure, and I wish the group every success, but it remains to be seen how the organisation will develop in this new context.

Maybe it will be the case, as Murphy suggests, that under a future Irish government in which Sinn Féin participates, PBP, or some successor, could become a mass organisation with a significant reformist wing.23 If such a party were to win electoral success, attracting large pools of reformist members and voters, it is hard to see how it could avoid mutating into a left-reformist party with revolutionaries within it, who would then face the same kind of challenges that have beset revolutionary socialists in Die Linke and Syriza as well as the Podemos party in the Spanish state.

The problem here is that the only generalisable lessons that Murphy offers are “the notion of revolutionaries engaging in mass work in a principled manner” and that “revolutionaries need to act as revolutionaries”.24 Both are valid, but they are also rather vague lessons. I dare say that revolutionary socialists in lots of other European contexts, not least those of us in Britain, would state that they were committed to both—and our practice, I hope, bears this out.

Murphy suggests that my article “seems equivalent to someone listing all of the people who have drowned and concluding that it is best to avoid getting in the water”.25 The problem with his analogy is that most people who have got into the water over the past 25 years survived the experience. However, plenty of good revolutionaries around Europe have succumbed to the choppy tides of electoral work. If Murphy has learnt to swim, I wish him luck, but he should tell us how it is done.

Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).


1 Murphy, 2024. Murphy was writing in reply to Choonara, 2023. Thanks to Shaun Doherty, Charlie Kimber and Richard Donnelly for comments on this article in draft.

2 Less constructive was the “engagement” offered by two authors in Left Voice, Nathaniel Flakin and Lennart Beeken, who seem to have followed the traditional sectarian approach of guessing what my article might say and criticising the resulting guesswork. For instance, they claim that my article “ignores…Unity (FIT-U) in Argentina”. If they had got as far as the second paragraph they would have read: “The purpose of this article is to assess…experiences in a European context.” I nonetheless go on to write the following: “There are also models beyond Europe that are not included in this survey but are worthy of further consideration. For instance, the Workers’ Left Front—Unity (FIT-U; Frente de Izquierda y de Trabajadores—Unidad) grouping of Trotskyist parties in Argentina appears to have achieved some success in elections on an anti-capitalist platform.” More generally, they accuse me of writing to defend a model of electoral work that I actually sharply criticise. Indeed, were this not the case, Murphy’s reply would be incomprehensible. See Flakin and Beekan, 2023.

3 Lenin, 1993.

4 Murphy, 2024.

5 Murphy, 2024.

6 In 2016, right-wing Labour MP Tom Watson published a dossier on entryism containing a surprising heading: “SWP sets up training course to infiltrate Labour”—see Pope, 2016. I set up the “training course” in question. Its principal objective was to explain to newer members of the SWP our vision for building a revolutionary party outside Labour in the context of the rise of Corbyn.

7 The tragi-comedic correspondence between the Socialist Party leader Peter Taaffe and Labour general secretary Jennie Formby can be read online at www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/27949/19-09-2018/the-struggle-to-transform-labour

8 Eaton, 2015.

9 Murphy, 2024.

10 The CWI is the international grouping of the successors to the Militant Tendency and its counterparts, latterly the Socialist Party here in Britain. The IST is the international organisation in which the SWP and its counterparts participate. Murphy was a member of the CWI until 2019, when he left to form RISE.

11 Choonara, 2023, p49.

12 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, p85.

13 Murphy, 2024.

14 Murphy, 2024, p95. For, in my view, an accurate appraisal of the Militant experience, see Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp361-365.

15 That is not to say that revolutionary socialists should never enter reformist or centrist formations. As I mention in my article, in the years following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin and Leon Trotsky were at pains to argue with those ultra-left currents newly won to revolutionary socialism that they had to intervene in centrist organisations that were radicalising under pressure of revolutionary upheavals. This would be precisely part of an effort to cohere a larger independent revolutionary party by separating large numbers of radicalising members at the base of these centrist organisations from their vacillating reformist leaders. Sadly, we are not in such a period today.

16 I was at pains in my original article to differentiate serious revolutionary projects from sectarian ones that often do conform to his stereotype. These sorts of groups can grow in the present period—up to a point—without serious engagement in working-class struggle. A case in point is Socialist Appeal, an offshoot from the CWI, which has recently attracted a few hundred young members based largely on dogmatic Marxist propaganda. The group is now rebranding itself the Revolutionary Communist Party. According to its leader, Alan Woods: “In all countries it’s a fact, an empirically verifiable fact…that probably millions of young people are already drawing the correct conclusions… They are looking for the banner of communism… All you need to do is to stand on the street corner, proclaim communism, take a banner, take a newspaper if possible… They will come to you… We’re the only organisation that has a responsibility for re-establishing communism… We will build a powerful communist International.” He continues in this vein—see Woods, 2024.

17 Murphy, 2024.

18 Indeed, Lenin was quite firm that, even while countering abstentionism, revolutionaries should tell workers “the bitter truth”: “You must call their bourgeois democratic and parliamentary prejudices—prejudices.” See Lenin, 1993, p68.

19 Lenin, 1993, p71.

20 Murphy, 2024.

21 Buchholz, 2024.

22 Murphy mentions the weakness of social-democratic and Stalinist parties, as well as the voting system and the relatively substantial presence of Trotskyists—Murphy, 2024, p97. See also, Choonara, 2023, pp72-75.

23 Murphy, 2024, p97.

24 Murphy, 2024.

25 Murphy, 2024.


Buchholz, Christine, 2024, “Interview: Die Linke’s crisis and the German Far Left”, International Socialism 181 (winter), https://isj.org.uk/die-linkes-crisis

Choonara, Joseph, 2023, “Revolutionaries and Elections”, International Socialism 179 (summer), https://isj.org.uk/revolutionaries-and-elections

Cliff, Tony, and Donny Gluckstein, 1996, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks).

Eaton, Geroge, 2015, “Pro-Corbyn Group Momentum Vows to Resist SWP ‘Infiltration’”, New Statesman (16 October), http://tinyurl.com/mrxehx8m

Flakin, Nathaniel, and Lennart Beeken, 2023, “Marx21 in Germany is About to Split”, Left Voice (9 August), www.leftvoice.org/marx21-in-germany-is-about-to-split

Lenin, Vladimir, 1993 [1920], “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (Bookmarks).

Murphy, Paul, 2024, “Learning to Swim: Revolutionaries, Broad Parties and Elections”, International Socialism 181 (winter), http://tinyurl.com/492v9t44

Pope, Conor, 2016, “Tom Watson Sends Corbyn Dossier as ‘Proof’ of Far Left Entryism into Labour” (11 August), https://labourlist.org/2016/08/tom-watson-sends-corbyn-dossier-as-proof-of-far-left-entryism-into-labour

Woods, Alan, 2024, “Alan Woods on World Perspectives: Crisis, Class Struggle and the Tasks of the Communists”, www.marxist.com/alan-woods-on-world-perspectives-crisis-class-struggle-and-the-tasks-of-the-communists.htm