The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: a reply to John Rees

Issue: 100

Murray Smith

John Rees’s contribution to the debate over what kind of party socialists should be building today deals with fundamental issues.1 It is very welcome, as is the reproduction in International Socialism of the two articles from Frontline by Nick McKerrell and myself. The issues in this debate are also being debated internationally. The three main points that I want to take up here are the nature of the Labour Party and similar parties elsewhere, the united front and the question of what kind of party we need today.

The transformation of social democracy

The question of the nature of the Labour Party in Britain and of social democratic parties elsewhere is of fundamental importance. The qualitative transformation that these parties have undergone (or not undergone, according to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)) is a decisive factor. John Rees writes, ‘If Labour is finished the whole political territory that it previously occupied is, potentially at least, open to a new socialist party’,2 and, ‘If all these conditions pertain to the current political situation then it might be perfectly correct to launch a new broad party without immediately confronting the issue of reform or revolution’.3 These remarks could be interpreted as encouraging, indicating that if the SWP changed its analysis of the Labour Party, then it might also change its view of what kind of party is needed today.

The question of the Labour Party remains important, however. And there is very little sign of the SWP changing its view on this in the near future, certainly not in John Rees’s article. What is most striking is not the fact that they have not arrived at the same conclusions as us, but that their vision of the Labour Party remains remarkably static, as if nothing had changed qualitatively since 1920.

It is, however, doubtful that the SWP’s analysis of the Labour Party is the reason for their now quite clear refusal to build a broad socialist party on the lines of the Scotish Socialist Party (SSP) in England and Wales. In the first place, while maintaining that nothing fundamental has changed, they have de facto recognised that a space has opened up on the electoral level by relaunching the Socialist Alliance and engaging in election campaigns—a fairly radical departure for an organisation which, apart from a brief period in the late 1970s, had not only completely rejected elections but almost made a principle out of this rejection. John Rees’s defence of the unchanged character of the Labour Party is rather perfunctory and unconvincing. The main thrust of his article is clearly to defend the necessity of building a revolutionary organisation like the SWP today, rather than a broad socialist party like the SSP. This is in line with the efforts deployed by the leadership of the SWP to demonstrate that the experience of the SSP is not a model, or not the only model, and certainly not for England, and to reaffirm the primacy of building their own organisation. John Rees’s defence of the SWP’s conception of the united front seems to flow less from his analysis of the Labour Party and more from considerations linked to building the SWP.

Our contention is that there has indeed been a qualitative transformation of the Labour Party. Furthermore, this is an international process, affecting all social democratic parties in the advanced capitalist countries as well as the Left Democrats (DS—the majority of the former Italian Communist Party) in Italy. Comparable changes, which go beyond the scope of this article, have occurred in relation to a series of working class, populist or nationalist parties in the Third World.

The origins of this transformation can be dated with some precision. The long post-war boom definitively came to an end with the recession of 1974-1975. The period 1968-1975 had been marked by revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal and in Britain by the biggest wave of working class struggles since 1945. In each of those countries the social democratic and Stalinist parties played a key role in defusing situations that were potentially dangerous for capitalism—these parties used their influence over the working class to stabilise capitalist rule.

John Rees points out correctly that ‘in a period of economic expansion the Labour Party could both implement reforms and remain within the parameters of the capitalist system’.4 He adds that later there ‘opened an era of reformism without reforms’.5

But we are no longer in a period of reformism without reforms. We are more than 25 years into an offensive of the capitalist class internationally. The aim of this offensive is quite simply to take back everything that was gained by the working class after 1945.

Crucially, the neo-liberal programme has been implemented by governments of both right and left, something which could be demonstrated in detail in relation to virtually every country in Western Europe.

In France, after a brief hesitation, Mitterrand imposed the policy of ‘rigour’ in 1983 and the Socialist Party not only abandoned any perspective of the ‘break with capitalism’ that it had talked about in the 1970s but tamely accepted the dictatorship of the market. In Spain the neo-liberal offensive was conducted ruthlessly, by the Socialist governments of Felipe Gonzalez from 1982 to 1996.

It is not just a case of social democratic parties carrying out some anti working class policies. It is of them becoming partners in a whole system of alternating governments of right and left which pursue essentially the same policies, dictated by big capital.

The policies in question consist not just of managing capitalism in a general way without implementing reforms, but of systematically carrying out the neo-liberal counter-reforms that are demanded. There is therefore no prospect, no room for manoeuvre for social democracy to return to the ‘golden age’ (which appears more and more clearly as an Indian summer) of 1945 to 1975.

Alex Callinicos has written that ‘reformism represents an ideological compromise between capitalist and revolutionary worldviews’. It should be added that the compromise was always in favour of capitalism. But there was a compromise. Where is the compromise when left governments privatise, deregulate, cut back public services and so on just like their right wing counterparts?

Fundamentally, in the present phase of capitalism, reforms are not on the agenda. That does not mean that no reforms can ever be conceded in the face of a mass movement. Nor does it mean that currents cannot appear proposing reforms. Nor, that reformist ideas do not exist in the working class. It does mean that capitalism cannot make the kind of concessions it could after 1945 and that there is therefore no basis for a stable, durable reformism that can maintain the allegiance of the working class by delivering the goods. The reason why the socialist parties have without exception adopted the neo-liberal agenda is that there is no middle way. The only alternative is to take the anti-capitalist road, and they are not prepared to take that. The transformation of these parties into direct agents of neo-liberal capitalism is reflected in their changed relations with both the working class and the capitalist class.

What are the changes that have occurred? First of all, the social composition of the Labour Party has changed. It is very much open to question that ‘its individual members are overwhelmingly working class’, as John Rees claims.6 A 1997 survey of Labour Party members found that only 15 percent were in the ‘manual working class’ category, while 64 percent were in the ‘white collar, salaried’ category. Of course, many of the latter could be working class in the Marxist definition of the term. But a significant fact is that in 1997 only 29 percent of Labour Party members were trade union members, down from 38 percent in 1994. That hardly fits with an overwhelmingly working class membership.

Certainly the majority of Labour’s electorate is working class. But that proves nothing about the party’s class nature. In an advanced capitalist country any party has to win working class votes to get elected, and capitalist parties such as the Peronists in Argentina, Fianna Fail in Ireland and the Democrats in the US all rely heavily on working class votes. It is certainly true that those workers who still vote Labour will be more organised and more class-conscious than those who vote Tory or Lib Dem. But it is no longer true that they are necessarily more class-conscious than those who abstain or who in Scotland vote for the SNP.

Nor are the links with the unions in themselves decisive in determining the class nature of a party. (Most European social democratic parties have never had the same formal links with the unions as the Labour Party in Britain.) Without being affiliated to it, the AFL-CIO systematically supports and funds the US Democratic Party, to the tune of $48 million in 2000.

What is decisive in deciding the class nature of a party is the way in which a series of factors—the party’s policies, its membership, its electorate, links with the unions, etc—combine to determine how the working class relates to that party. Does it consider it as its party? Does it trust it to carry out measures broadly in favour of the working class and defend its interests, albeit within the framework of capitalism? In a previous period most workers voted for the Labour Party because they felt it represented them. If they wanted to engage in political action they joined it. Now workers in Britain and elsewhere vote for the Labour Party and its sister parties as a lesser evil.

As for the Communist parties, it would not be correct to describe them as simply capitalist parties. But those which retain any influence are faced with the choice between remaining in a dwindling Stalinist ghetto (as in Portugal and Greece) or becoming satellites of social democracy (most clearly in France). The conclusion must be that the social democratic parties and to a very large extent the Communist parties are finished as vehicles for working class aspirations. Certainly there are still some socialists in them. There are also socialists in the SNP or other nationalist parties and in the Greens. But they are not about to transform those parties into vehicles for socialist change. And what is absolutely striking, faced with the bourgeois transformation of social democracy, is that there has not been one serious left split anywhere in Europe. As for the Communist parties, in Italy Rifondazione stands out as the exception, as a party which has chosen an anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist road.

The task before us is precisely to build new socialist parties with the aim of ‘occupying the whole political territory’. How? Along what lines of demarcation between reform and revolution? Are we really confronted with a situation today where the dividing line in the working class movement is between those who want to carry through a socialist transformation using the institutions of the capitalist state, and those who want to do so by revolutionary means? What we are actually confronted with is a division between those who, while perhaps opposing neo-liberalism, accept the framework of capitalism and at the most seek to ‘humanise’ it, and those who defend an anti-capitalist, socialist perspective. That leads us to occupy the space left open by the evolution of the traditional workers’ parties by building parties that start from the struggles of today and defend the perspective of socialism.

The struggles of today can mean fighting the closure of hospitals and community centres, opposing PPP/PFI, supporting the firefighters or demonstrating in Florence. For most of the 1990s socialists faced an uphill task, first of all to convince people that it was possible to fight and win, and secondly to rehabilitate socialism as the alternative to capitalism. Now with the development of the anti-globalisation movement, a new rise in working class struggles, changes in the unions and the development of the anti-war movement, the task is easier.

The united front

John Rees claims that I have a narrow view of the united front. I would reply that his own is somewhat too broad to be functional in the present debate. Yes, Trotsky said that the trade union was the rudimentary form of the united front and the soviet the highest. But by approaching the question from that angle the danger is that the united front becomes everything and at the same time nothing. I was dealing with the united front as a tactic, with what John Rees himself calls ‘an agreement for action between reformists and revolutionaries, the definition of a united front’.

The original united front tactic of the Communist International was formulated to respond to a situation where a large part of the working class still followed reformist parties and it was impossible for the Communists to engage in common action without proposing an agreement to their leaders. Trotsky wrote in 1922, ‘If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our immediate practical slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form’.7 Now ‘we’ (the SWP, the SSP, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR)—the radical and revolutionary left) are not simply able to unite the working masses around our own banner. But on the other hand it is not an exaggeration to say that we can ‘skip over’ the traditional parties of the working class, which means that the united front is not posed today in the form that it was in 1922, and indeed much later. To mobilise workers and youth today there is no need to propose united fronts to the Labour Party or the French Socialist and Communist parties, because first of all they have themselves very little ability to mobilise and secondly they are not capable of using their authority as in the past to block workers’ struggles, to demobilise.

That implies a change of tactics for traditional far left organisations and new socialist parties. It does not however mean that the question of the united front is not posed. It is posed in different ways. In particular there are organisations—the trade unions—usually led by reformists, sometimes right wing reformists, which do retain the loyalty of workers. It is quite possible to form united fronts with union leaders to oppose privatisation, defend union rights or support a strike.

A current case in point is in Italy. Rifondazione, alone at first, called for the nationalisation of Fiat. This was later supported by not only the CGIL, the largest and most left wing union confederation, but by the two others as well. This creates the basis for a united campaign, with all the contradictions and conflicts that can be imagined, since most of the union leaders are far from being anti-capitalist. Significantly the parties of the late Olive Tree centre left government, including the ex-Communist Left Democrats (DS) did not support this demand, calling only for better compensation for sacked workers. Such united fronts with union leaders can also be posed in France and certainly in Britain.

It is also possible to build broad united fronts on the question of war or against the far right or in defence of democratic rights. But there is a difference here with struggles on the economic front. On the latter terrain the unions are and always will be present. Other areas have been abandoned by the traditional parties as they have evolved rightwards.

The first example was probably the movement against the poll tax, which was largely led by revolutionary socialists, especially Militant. A current example is the anti-war movement in England and Wales, which is largely led by the far left, especially the SWP, whereas in the past the Labour left and the Communist Party would have played an important role. Such campaigns should be open to everyone who agrees with their objectives, including Labour Party members. But prior agreement with the reformists is not a condition of building a movement. In the mobilisations against Le Pen last year the Socialist Party was present, though outnumbered by the revolutionary left. But millions of people took to the streets not because of any call by the Socialist Party or indeed the far left, but because of their opposition to the National Front.

In the present period it is a question of developing new forms of unity that correspond to the present phase of recomposition of the working class movement.

Is the Anti Nazi League (ANL) a united front? It is certainly a single issue campaign open to anyone. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a campaign, even one which lasts for 25 years, if it continues to fulfil a role. It is also widely considered to be an SWP front. Why? First of all because the impressive list of sponsors that John Rees cites are precisely that—sponsors. The only political organisation that supports the ANL is the SWP and it is the SWP that decides when and how to use it. Secondly, a real mass united front campaign, such as the anti poll tax campaign, had local committees and open democratic structures, including annual conferences and an elected leadership. That is not apparently how the ANL functions.

ATTAC in France has 30,000 members and local branches all over the country. We could debate whether it is a united front of a special kind or a new type of social/political movement. The political orientations of its leadership are questionable, and there is a problem with its lack of accountability to the membership. But nobody calls it a front for any political organisation, though it has many members who belong to political organisations.

What kind of party?

John Rees poses the question at the very beginning of his article, ‘The issue is this, what kind of party should socialists build? Should it be a broad socialist party or a revolutionary organisation?’8 From the beginning the two are counterposed. He writes:

In his ‘Notes on the Workers’ party’, Murray Smith writes as if the whole perspective of building revolutionary organisations is redundant. But in his polemic with the SWP in the most recent article he writes as if the formation of broad parties is simply the most effective way for the revolutionary left to increase its influence in the present conjuncture.9

Let me start by clarifying my position. I am convinced that the building of revolutionary organisations of the type of the SWP, LCR, etc, in their present form, is becoming redundant and that these organisations should contribute to the building of new broad socialist parties and function as currents within them. I do not believe that the strategic perspective of building revolutionary parties, that is, parties capable of leading a revolution, a socialist transformation of society, is redundant.

I am convinced that the role of revolutionary Marxists today is to build broad socialist parties while defending their own Marxist positions within them, with the aim, not of building a revolutionary faction with an ‘entrist’ perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise. I would put the question as follows: ‘To overthrow capitalism and carry out a socialist transformation of society we need a mass revolutionary party. Starting from where we are today, what is the best way to get there?’ When John Rees counterposes ‘broad socialist party’ to ‘revolutionary organisation’ he is describing the two choices that effectively confront revolutionary socialists today. However, when he later counterposes a broad socialist party to a revolutionary party he is wrong. Building a broad socialist party today may in fact be the best way to advance towards a mass revolutionary party tomorrow. What would be the necessary attributes of a revolutionary party? In particular, such a party would have to be clear that it is not sufficient just to take control of the existing state machine but necessary to replace it with democratic organisations of working class power, that the working class has to maintain its political independence in relation to all other classes and that the struggle is international.

But that is not enough. A party does not approach a revolutionary situation with a ready-made programme which it simply has to apply. We will have to resolve questions that history has not yet posed. We can integrate the lessons of the past into our programme, but we will always have to resolve new problems and make strategic and tactical choices in concrete situations that we cannot anticipate. Organisations who think that today they already have the programme which will enable them to lead the socialist transformation of society are deluding themselves and others.

We are not just talking about building a revolutionary party, we have to build a mass revolutionary party, a party which has real roots in the working class and indeed other sectors of society. Only such a party is capable of simultaneously learning from the working class and giving leadership to it, and at a certain moment winning the support of the majority. The difference between such a party and the existing far left groups is not just quantitative but qualitative. As Alex Callinicos points out, ‘The history of the workers’ movement shows very clearly that mass revolutionary parties do not develop through a linear process in which a small Marxist group gradually grows bigger and bigger by recruiting more and more members; like history more generally, the development of revolutionary parties involves qualitative leaps and sharp breaks’.10 I would argue that in England today the road to a mass revolutionary party does not lie in the linear growth of the SWP nor in a thoroughly illusory fusion with a leftward split from the Labour Party. It lies in creating a broad socialist party that can appeal to workers disillusioned with the Labour Party. It is the alienation of the Labour Party and similar parties elsewhere from their traditional membership and electorate that makes it both necessary and possible to build new socialist parties that can acquire a mass character.

The party will have to be democratic and pluralist, to allow the organised expression not only of different opinions but of different political platforms. This is not an optional extra. It is necessary in order to resolve the many problems that will occur between now and the revolution. The absence of the organised interaction of different points of view in organisations like the SWP, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, Lutte Ouvrière and others is a real problem.11 If you do not allow pluralism in your own organisation today, why should you allow it in a revolutionary party tomorrow?

A real, mass, living, growing party will have a defined programme. But it will never be chemically pure. The Bolshevik Party always had rightist, compromising tendencies and ultra-left tendencies. That was even more true for the Communist parties which emerged in Western Europe. Is it better today to build a revolutionary organisation such as the SWP or a broad party such as the SSP? The answer flows from the changes in the working class movement. For many years reformism was completely dominant and revolutionary organisations existed as a minority. The possibility of building mass parties to the left of the reformist parties did not exist, so long as workers followed those parties. It exists now.

There are in Britain, in France and in other countries tens of thousands of workers and young people ready to engage in anti-capitalist political action and who can be won to parties that offer a real alternative. There are hundreds of thousands and potentially millions ready to support new parties which offer such an alternative. Is the best way to proceed to ask these workers to come to an existing revolutionary organisation, albeit through a series of campaigns and united fronts? Or is it to create parties that can attract those who refuse the dominant neo-liberal ideology, who are ready to defend a socialist alternative, and to go forward with them?

The dividing line today is between anti-capitalism/socialism and pro-capitalism. That is very clear within the anti-globalisation movement. The opposition is not between revolutionaries and reformists, who have different ideas on how to advance towards socialism. It is between those who think you can combat neo-liberal globalisation without getting rid of capitalism, by going back to a more humanised form of capitalism, and those who realise that neo-liberal globalisation is precisely the contemporary form of capitalism and that it is has to be overthrown. Within that framework the SSP as a whole comes down squarely on the side of anti-capitalism.

The idea that the SSP is a mish-mash of reformists and revolutionaries does not correspond to the reality of the party. As Alan McCombes recently put it:

In the SSP there are revolutionary socialists and non-revolutionary socialists working together. Those who are non-revolutionary aren’t necessarily consciously anti-Marxist. Rather they are more open to how things may proceed in the future. It remains enough that they support the idea of socialism.12

That is a description of the really existing SSP, which gets away from a non-existent polarisation between revolutionaries and reformists. We never said that ‘the distinction between reform and revolution is no longer operative in modern politics’. What we do say is that at this stage of the struggle the dividing line in the working class movement is between those who accept capitalism and all that goes with it and those who take an anti-capitalist position. And that we unite people on that basis and then deal with the issues as they are posed concretely.

The fact that the basis no longer exists for stable, durable reforms and the absence of serious reformist currents does not mean that the distinction between reform and revolution is no longer relevant. In Europe reformism today will be weaker and less consistent than during the post-war period because the material base for it has been undermined, making it easier to win workers to a consistent class-struggle anti-capitalist position. Workers followed the reformist parties during the post-war boom not irrationally, not because reformist consciousness is somehow ‘natural’, but because it brought them material benefits, which is no longer the case. John Rees is not the first to predict that the Marxists in the SSP will be overwhelmed by reformist currents. The leadership of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) and its supporters in Scotland already did that several years ago. They have up to now been proved wrong because they do not understand the kind of party the SSP is. More fundamentally, in my opinion, they do not understand the material roots of the dominance of reformism within the working class.

John Rees describes a relation between Marxists and others in the SSP which does not correspond to the reality. When he asks, ‘How can they [the Marxists] effectively translate this into the united action of the whole party when a substantial section of the party disagrees in general and in the specific with its Marxist component?’13 he is presumably outlining a hypothetical future situation, certainly not the present. I am also somewhat mystified as to how he can wonder ‘when the revolutionaries will reveal their true colours’.14 In the above quote by Alan McCombes, in Frontline and in general ISM members do not hide their ‘true colours’ as revolutionary socialists. They just do not make it an artificial dividing line or let it prevent them building the SSP along with other party members who would not define themselves, at any rate not at this stage, in that way. In the article in Green Left Weekly Alan McCombes is also quoted as saying that ‘he believes that it will be the political battles around campaign perspectives and tactics that will shape the political development of the SSP. “This is how the party will evolve and achieve political clarification, not so much by abstract debates and discussions”.’ This is in fact how parties in general evolve and clarify their positions, in discussions that relate to real events. Why should Marxists lose out in these discussions?

In a party which starts out on the basis of assembling those who are ready to fight capitalism and for socialism, a party that is rooted in the workplaces and communities, whose centre of gravity is in those workplaces and communities and not in parliamentary institutions, a party that is democratic and not dominated by a bureaucratic apparatus, there is no reason why, in an ongoing debate closely tied into the experience of the party, revolutionary Marxist ideas cannot become largely dominant.

Marxist programme

John Rees, and also Alex Callinicos, argue that the type of party they defend is necessarily more effective in the class struggle. Callinicos claims that ‘the relative ideological homogeneity of a revolutionary Marxist party gives it a greater capacity for rapid and decisive action than looser, more programmatically ambiguous formations’.15 But it doesn’t always correspond to reality. We have just spoken about Rifondazione, a very different party from the SWP. Yet it is this party, broad, heterogeneous and pluralist, which is behind most of the big mobilisations in Italy. It also works within broad united fronts. So the choice, either in Italy or in Scotland, is not between a narrow revolutionary organisation working through united fronts and a broad socialist party which doesn’t.

The comrades’ tendency to imagine that only a homogeneous party can be effective is worrying. Because any truly mass revolutionary party would necessarily be impure, heterogeneous and not always very disciplined. The SWP, and it is far from alone in this, tends to perpetuate the myth of a homogeneous Bolshevik party which ironed out its differences and then took united action. In real life it was rather more complicated than that. In 1917 and subsequently there were not only serious differences, but party members not infrequently argued against each other in public.

When representatives of the SWP refer positively to the SSP it is usually to recognise its success on the electoral level. To be able to have electoral success you have to be able to communicate your ideas to a mass audience in an accessible way. To put it mildly, this has not always been the hallmark of the far left in Britain, or elsewhere for that matter. But it is a hallmark of the SSP. Electoral work is not to be treated with disdain. It is a vital aspect of building a mass socialist party. It enables working class people to show their support, not just for this or that campaign, but for the general programme of the party and the ideas of socialism. That expression of support in turn becomes a material factor reinforcing the party’s authority in the class struggle. Electoral success is not the be-all and end-all of socialist politics, but it is a key component of a general strategy of winning the support of the majority of working people.

It is seriously mistaken to convey the impression, intentionally or not, that the SSP is primarily an electoralist party. John Rees is obliged to recognise that ‘the SSP has of course taken very similar positions to the SWP on both these issues [the war and the BNP] and a host of other critical questions. But the issue is not words and policies but deeds and actions’.16 The implication is that, at least on these questions, the SSP is long on words and policies but short on deeds and actions. The SSP has taken a consistently anti-war position, acting as the political backbone of the anti- war campaign in Scotland, and plays a central role in the anti-war coalition. Two party members have recently been imprisoned for anti-war, anti-nuclear activity at Faslane naval base. The SSP was the only party of the left internationally to send a representative to Pakistan/Afghanistan during the war, to report for the Scottish Socialist Voice and build solidarity links. Tommy Sheridan has been to the fore in opposing the war on Iraq in parliament. Even a cursory look at the party paper, the Scottish Socialist Voice, would dispel this myth.

The SSP does not reject united action with other political forces. We do not refuse to work with members of the Labour Party or the SNP, as can be seen from Tommy’s initiatives in parliament over warrant sales and free school meals, and through the anti-war movement. And it is frankly to underestimate the political intelligence of the party and its members to imply that they approach Labour Party members by telling them that they are New Tories. We do say that Blair and company are New Tories and that the Labour Party is finished as a working class party and encourage them to join the SSP. But the fact that some choose to remain in the Labour Party doesn’t prevent joint work.

At the SWP’s congress last October it was clear that their concept of party building involves using ‘united fronts’ as a pool for recruitment, with the Marxist forums serving as the conduit towards the party. Running through the positions of John Rees and Alex Callinicos is the idea that there is a norm for a revolutionary party, represented by existing far left organisations and in particular the SWP, and that all other parties are to be judged by how far they correspond to this norm. The existing far left organisations, even the most open of them, remain narrow and tied to their own particular shibboleths. They are a product of a past phase or phases of the class struggle and the workers’ movement.

The task for them now is to invest their intellectual, political and human resources in the building of broader parties and to work in a comradely way to bring the essential conquests of Marxism, the lessons of history, into these new parties. The traditions of mass socialist and communist parties have not been wiped out by the experience of the last 20 years.

The experience of the 20th century has enriched the Marxist programme. It is at present necessary for Marxist currents to organise as such in new parties. When it is no longer the case it will be because Marxist ideas have become largely dominant in the party and such separate organisation is no longer necessary.

Today the main thing stopping the Socialist Alliance (SA) from moving towards becoming a party is a lack of political will, above all on the part of the SWP. I think the SWP is making a huge mistake by relegating the SA to being one united front among others. If the SA were to become a mass campaigning organisation and if the SWP were to throw its resources into building it, then it could very quickly make the transition to a party.

While seeking to understand the new developments in the class struggle, the SWP remains stuck in an outmoded vision of the workers’ movement. Consequently, instead of posing the question of the building of the party in terms of the possibilities at the beginning of the 21st century its approach is in many ways ‘back to the 1970s’, a more open, campaigning approach to building the SWP, but nothing qualitatively new.

Alex Callinicos concluded his article in the IST bulletin with the following remarks:

Since Seattle the revolutionary left has been embarking—along with many others, fortunately—on a new voyage. There is no map to guide us—no set of rules or obvious historical reference point to dictate what we should do. The potential rewards are enormous. History will not forgive us if we miss this chance.17

Leaving aside the secondary question of whether the voyage started at Seattle or earlier, those are sentiments to which we can heartily subscribe. It is precisely because the SWP is in our opinion in danger of ‘missing this chance’ that this discussion is so important and needs to be pursued.


This article was first published in Frontline 9 (February/March 2003),

  1. J Rees, ‘The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front’, International Socialism 97 (Winter 2002).
  2. As above, p59.
  3. As above, p60.
  4. As above, p58.
  5. As above.
  6. As above, p60.
  7. L Trotsky, ‘On the United Front’, in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol 2 (London, 1974) pp93-94.
  8. J Rees, as above, p57.
  9. As above, pp66-67.
  10. A Callinicos, ‘Regroupment, Realignment and the Revolutionary Left’, IST Discussion Bulletin, no 1, July 2002.
  11. This is not to imply that the internal regimes of these organisations are in other respects identical.
  12. Quoted in S Peart, ‘Scotland: Marxists Build united Voice for socialism’, Green Left Weekly, October 2002.
  13. J Rees, as above, p66.
  14. As above, p67.
  15. A Callinicos, as above.
  16. J Rees, as above, p64.
  17. A Callinicos, as above.