Where is the radical left going?

Issue: 120

Alex Callinicos

The past decade has seen the emergence of a new left, particularly in Europe. Fragile and uneven though this process has been, it represents a real attempt to develop a progressive alternative to neoliberalism, war and indeed capitalism itself, giving a political voice to the new movements of resistance that have developed since the Seattle protests of November 1999. The convergence of these movements and the radical left, and the political horizons this seemed to open up were perhaps most visible at the first European Social Forum (ESF) at Florence in November 2002. This took place between the mass protests against the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 and the giant global demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003. At the largest and most euphoric “seminar” 10,000 people packed into a hall to hear leading representatives of the radical left—most notably Fausto Bertinotti, general secretary of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) and Olivier Besancenot, chief spokesman of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR)—discuss the relationship between social movements and political parties.1

Diverging paths

That heady moment seems very distant now. In the past couple of years the fortunes of the radical left have diverged sharply. The most important case on the negative side was provided by the PRC itself. The party of Genoa and Florence moved from 2004 onwards sharply to the right, denouncing the resistance to the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq as fascist and joining the centre-left coalition government of Romano Prodi that held office briefly in 2006-8. PRC deputies and senators voted for Prodi’s neoliberal economic programme, and for the participation of Italian troops in the occupation of Afghanistan and in the United Nations “peacekeeping” mission to Lebanon.2 In April 2007 the PRC leadership expelled a far-left senator, Franco Turigliatto, for voting against government foreign policy. Despite the PRC’s participation in a new “Rainbow” formation with other elements on the left of the governing coalition, it was punished in the general elections of April 2008 for its association with a disastrous government. Amid a crushing victory for the right under Silvio Berlusconi, the Rainbow won only 3.1 percent of the vote, compared to 5.8 percent for the PRC alone two years earlier, and lost all its parliamentary seats. Bertinotti, unceremoniously deprived of the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies to which he had been elevated under Prodi, announced his retirement from politics.

The radical left also suffered reverses elsewhere. In Britain first the Scottish Socialist Party and then Respect split: when the rival fragments ran against each other, both sides predictably suffered electoral eclipse.3 In the Danish general election of November 2007 the Red-Green Alliance lost two of the six seats it had previously held. The setbacks were not confined to Europe. In South Korea the Democratic Labour Party, formed in 2000 and closely linked to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, suffered a right wing breakaway after the 2007 presidential elections. In Australia the Democratic Socialist Perspective, the far-left organisation that had been the driving force behind the Socialist Alliance electoral regroupment, also experienced a split in May 2008, an issue in which was the failure of the alliance to make a breakthrough. In Brazil the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSol), formed in 2004 after the ruling Workers Party expelled five far-left parliamentarians, has been weakened by the willingness of Heloísa Helena, its candidate in the 2006 presidential elections, to collaborate with the right over issues such as political corruption and abortion.

Fortunately, there are more positive experiences. The most exciting of these has been the initiative taken by the LCR to launch a New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA). This followed Besancenot’s emergence during and after the French presidential elections of April-May 2007 as the most credible and popular voice of opposition to Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to drive France rightwards. Around 800 delegates representing some 300 initiative committees for the NPA met in Paris on 28 and 29 June 2008.4 On one estimate, the committees organised around 10,000 activists—going, therefore, well beyond the ranks of the LCR, which has a membership of about 3,500. In an opinion poll conducted in July 2008, 62 percent rated Besancenot positively and 7 to 8 percent intended to vote for his party.5

In Germany Die Linke, officially constituted as a party in June 2007 and the result of a convergence between dissident social democrats in western Germany and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the heir of the old East German ruling party, continues to make electoral inroads into the base of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). By the time of its second congress in May 2008 Die Linke claimed around 75,000 members. In Greece the radical left coalition Synaspismos has soared in the opinion polls as a result of the crisis of both the centre-right government and the Blairite opposition Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok).

And even in Italy, the country that has seen the most catastrophic collapse of the radical left, the trend is not uniformly negative. In reaction to electoral eclipse the PRC national congress, when it met in July 2008, moved left. Bertinotti and his allies were defeated by a coalition of left wing currents led by Paolo Ferrero. The delegates, elected by meetings attended by 40,000 members, voted for a document calling for “a shift to the left” and declaring an end to “organic collaboration [with the centre-left Democratic Party] in governing the country”. It continued:

It is important to recover the idea that the opposition is not merely a collocation in the political spectrum but must be a phase of reconstruction, of taking root, of social relations, of cultural and political battles. In the crisis of capitalistic globalisation, the alternative has to be built through social and political struggle against the Berlusconi government, the projects of Confindustria [the employers’ organisation] and fundamentalist outlooks. Within this perspective, it is indispensable to strengthen the alternative left through the collaboration between the diverse anti-capitalist, communist and leftist movements; aggregating the collective and individual realities which are found outside of political parties in diverse social, cultural and labour strata.6

The primacy of politics

Nevertheless, the sense of participating in a general forward movement that prevailed a few years ago has been replaced by a marked divergence. What has caused this shift? To answer this question we need to understand the driving forces behind the rise of the radical left, particularly in Europe. Two main objective coordinates were involved. First, the emergence of mass resistance to neoliberalism and war, starting with the French public sector strikes of 1995 but gaining momentum after the 1999 Seattle protests. Second, the experience of “social liberalism” as social democratic governments, brought to office all over Europe in the second half of the 1990s by popular opposition to neoliberalism, proceeded to implement neoliberal policies, and in some cases—New Labour under Tony Blair in Britain and the Red-Green coalition headed by Gerhard Schröder in Germany—to go further than their conservative predecessors had dared.7

The rightward shift of mainstream social democracy opened up a space to its left. Furthermore, the revival of resistance created a pressure to fill this space. Various political formations took on the role of trying to fill it. They were of very diverse origins and histories—some already established, such as the PRC and the LCR, others very new, for example, the SSP and the Portuguese Left Bloc, yet others only formed in response to the new situation, such as Respect and Die Linke. Generally they did not attempt to fill the space on the left on the basis of an explicitly revolutionary programme. Hence the name that came to be attached to them—”radical left”, which implied a break with the mainstream centre-left but not a commitment to socialist revolution.

In some cases this reflected a tactical decision by far-left organisations to attract allies and a broader audience. But as often it was a consequence of the fact that many of the leaders of the new formations were themselves reformists, often seeking to restore a more “authentic” social democracy that, as they saw it, had been corrupted by the likes of Blair and Schröder. Thus George Galloway, who helped to found Respect in 2004 after being expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the Iraq War, said of Blair, “If he breaks the Labour Party, the need for a labour party will not have gone away. Some of us will be prepared to rebuild a labour party from the wreckage”.8

The emergence of this radical left marked an extremely important and positive development. It represented an opportunity to remake the left on a much more principled basis than had prevailed in the heyday of the social democratic and Stalinist parties. From the perspective of the new movements of resistance, it marked an important strategic shift, towards intervention in the political field.9 But this, while a step forward, generated its own problems. In the first place, politics has its own logic, which subjects to its hazards and contingencies all those who try to grapple with it. This is most obvious in the case of the constraints imposed by electoral systems, which in most bourgeois democracies work severely to the disadvantage of the small parties of the radical left.

Second, the various radical left formations were confronted with the question of how to continue in an environment that was somewhat less favourable to that of the forward momentum of the initial period. The initial period was bounded roughly by the years 1998, when left opposition to social liberalism first became visible, and 2005, when Respect made its greatest advance with Galloway’s election as MP for Bethnal Green & Bow and the European Constitution was defeated in the French and Dutch referendums. But after this period the radical left was forced to come to terms with one in which the mass opposition to the war in Iraq was receding, while the anti-capitalist movement had undergone a significant decline due to its failure to address important problems effectively.10

The response of the radical left formations was, of course, conditioned by the politics prevailing in them. This proved in the case of two key figures—Bertinotti and Galloway—to be a reformism that began to shift rightwards. Bertinotti’s reaction to the decline of the social forums that had spread throughout Italy after Genoa, and driven the mobilisations for Florence and the anti-war protests, was to turn back towards the centre-left with the disastrous consequences already noted. The retreat was imperfectly concealed behind a cloud of radical rhetoric exploiting the vagueness and ambiguity of the autonomist Marxism that continues heavily to influence the Italian movement.

In the case of Galloway and the circle around him the decline of the anti-war movement from the peak it achieved in 2003 combined with pessimism about the capacity of organised workers to mount effective resistance to the attacks mounted by New Labour and the bosses. The conclusion was that the way forward for Respect lay in sustaining alliances with local Muslim notables who could deliver votes. But this reasoning—and the split that it produced in Respect—was overlain by a growing reconciliation between Galloway himself and New Labour. This was reflected first in his support for Ken Livingstone’s unsuccessful re-election campaign for Mayor of London in May 2008 and then in his rallying to the aid of Gordon Brown’s beleaguered government during the Glasgow East parliamentary by-election that July, when a Blairite candidate was defeated by a massive swing to the Scottish National Party.11

Elsewhere the politics has played out better, so far. The majority in the LCR leadership seized the initiative amid general disarray on the French left reflected, for example, in the crisis in the main anti-globalisation coalition, Attac. They ran Besancenot in the first round of the French presidential elections in April 2007 and then, capitalising on his relative success (winning 4.08 percent of the vote despite the general rout of the left), launched the NPA.12 Die Linke is a much more solidly reformist formation than anything envisaged by the LCR. It is, however, defined by the struggle between two tendencies—a right wing, powerful both numerically and in the apparatus, constituted largely by the ex-leadership of the PDS, and a more left reformist current dominated by the ex-SPD trade union officials clustered around the figure of Oskar Lafontaine. From a historical perspective, the latter group is extremely significant, since it represents a fracture in the most powerful social democratic party in the world.

Lafontaine is a former party chairman and chancellor candidate for the SPD, and was briefly its finance minister in 1998-9, till he was driven from office by a big business campaign. He is pursuing a project of reconstituting German social democracy on a more left wing basis. In his speech at Die Linke’s national congress in May 2008 he denounced the SPD leader Friedrich Ebert for betraying the German Revolution of November 1918, invoked Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and quoted not only Karl Marx and Frederick Engels but the Marxist philosophers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—a rather unusual list of authorities for any social democratic politician to cite. More concretely, Lafontaine pledged Die Linke to opposition to war and to Nato, condemned the massive repression of wages suffered by German workers in recent years, and called for the strict regulation of financial markets.13

What kind of party?

The recent advances of Die Linke and the LCR show that the objective coordinates responsible for the initial rise of the radical left remain. But the experiences of the PRC and Respect highlight the political dangers faced by these formations. How can these dangers best be addressed? The response of the LCR is particularly interesting. It is influenced by the negative examples of centre-left governments, not only in Italy, but in France itself and in Brazil. Lionel Jospin’s plural left government (1997-2002) corralled together the Socialist, Communist and Green parties to implement a social-liberal programme that involved the privatisation of 36.4 billion Euros worth of state enterprises, more than its six predecessor governments combined.14

The experience of the Workers Party in Brazil since the victory of its leader, Lula, in the 2002 presidential election is an especially galling one for the LCR. Democrazia Socialista (DS), then the Brazilian section of the Fourth International, decided to participate in Lula’s government, despite his continuing a more rigorous version of the neoliberal economic policies pursued by the previous president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The resulting controversy led the DS eventually to break with the Fourth International, in which the LCR is very much the dominant force.

Determination to avoid any repetition of a situation where the radical left could be integrated into a social-liberal coalition government shaped the response of the LCR majority towards the attempt to make the collectives that had driven the No campaign against the European Constitution in 2005 the launch pad for a unitary “anti-liberal” candidate in the 2007 presidential campaign.15 The LCR leadership took the line that the very broad spectrum of forces involved in the No collectives—ranging from the left wing of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party through various anti_globalisation coalitions to the Ligue itself—was politically incoherent. More specifically, and crucially, the reformist currents involved would not rule out participation in a centre-left government, raising the spectre of another plural left coalition. The LCR’s scepticism about the project of a unitary “anti-liberal” candidate led to a negative and sometimes ultimatist attitude towards the collectives, which caused its isolation in the period before the efforts to find a candidate collapsed in early 2007. But the Ligue was at least partially vindicated by the behaviour of José Bové, who, after running in the first round on behalf of the rump of the collectives, associated himself with Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party right winger defeated by Sarkozy in the run-off.

It is to ward off this kind of danger that the LCR insists that the new party must be anti-capitalist and not simply opposed to neoliberalism (“anti-liberal” is the term used in France):

The question of power profoundly divides the so-called anti-liberal left. Every party must pose to itself the question of power, and we can’t make ourselves an exception to this rule. The question is to know in which framework, for whose benefit. For us, the question is to move from a situation where a minority decides and imposes its choices, its profits, and its privileges, to a situation where the greatest number take over the political and economic levers for managing society. We don’t desire power for ourselves but as an instrument of a movement from below…a powerful social movement, a May 1968 that goes to the end, that begins to control the direction of the economy.

The institutions are essential elements for maintaining social order and capitalist property. We don’t want to build a party of management but a party of rupture. That’s why independence from the Socialist Party is a key question. Liberal capitalism and anti-capitalism can’t cohabit in the same government. Our perspective is thus not to unite the left as it exists today, or some of its fragments, but to build a social and political movement of the majority for a rupture with capitalism. Then the question of power will be posed!16

So what precisely is this anti-capitalist party? It is, the same LCR text says, “a party for the revolutionary transformation of society”, yet not a revolutionary party in the specific sense in which it has been understood in the classical Marxist tradition.17 In that tradition, socialist revolution is assumed to take a particular form, particularly as a result of the experiences of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and the early years of the Communist International (1919-24). It involves mass strikes, the development of dual power counterposing institutions of workers’ democracy to the capitalist state, an armed insurrection to resolve this crisis by establishing the dominance of the workers’ councils, and, running through all this, the emergence of a mass revolutionary party with majority support in the working class. This broad conception of the revolutionary process is common to both the Fourth International and the International Socialist Tendency, to which the Socialist Workers Party belongs.18

On the LCR’s view, the NPA should not commit itself to this specific understanding of revolution, but simply to the necessity of “a rupture with capitalism”. If this notion may seem vague, its political significance lies in what it rules out. Specifically, the Ligue correctly argues, it is necessary to oppose capitalism as a system, not simply neoliberalism as a set of policies. Failing to draw this distinction can lead to participation in centre_left governments in the hope (usually the illusion) that they will produce a more benign mix of policies.19

There is much to commend the LCR’s conception of the NPA. Not only are they correct in insisting on the difference between anti-(neo)liberalism and anti-capitalism, but it is also right not to make explicit commitment to the revolutionary Marxist tradition the basis of the new party. This is for long-term strategic reasons. The political experience of the 20th century shows very clearly that in the advanced capitalist countries it is impossible to build a mass revolutionary party without breaking the hold of social democracy over the organised working class. In the era of the Russian Revolution it was possible for many European communist parties to begin to do this by splitting social democratic parties and winning substantial numbers of previously reformist workers directly to the revolutionary programme of the Communist International. October 1917 exercised an enormous attractive power on everyone around the world who wanted to fight the bosses and imperialism.

Alas, thanks to the experience of Stalinism, the opposite is true today. Social liberalism is repelling many working class people today, but, in the first instance, what they seek is a more genuine version of the reformism that their traditional parties once promised them. Therefore, if the formations of the radical left are to be habitable to these refugees from social democracy, their programmes must not foreclose the debate between reform and revolution by simply incorporating the distinctive strategic conceptions developed by revolutionary Marxists.20

All the same, navigating between the Scylla of opportunism and the Charybdis of sectarianism is never easy. On the one hand, drawing the dividing line between anti-liberalism and anti-capitalism isn’t necessarily straightforward. Given that, as the LCR would put it, anti-capitalism has “incomplete strategic delimitations”—ie it leaves open how the “rupture with capitalism” would be achieved—there is plenty of room for debate about what concrete steps are necessary. There are perfectly respectable left-reformist strategies for achieving a break with capitalism that presumably would have a right to a hearing in these debates. But—and here is where the complication arises—these strategies merge in with proposals that seek to target neoliberalism rather than capitalism itself. For example, on its own, the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions that is advocated by Die Linke and Attac is not an anti-capitalist measure. But it is perfectly possible to imagine how a real struggle for the Tobin Tax could develop into a confrontation with capital itself, and some of those who advocate it may well welcome such a prospect. The last serious wave of left reformism in the 1970s, associated with Tony Benn in Britain and Jean-Pierre Chevènement in France, sought, not to expropriate capital, but to use the state to harness it to socialist objectives.21

On the other hand, while the LCR are entirely right to oppose as a matter of principle participation in a centre-left government, they can’t assume that everyone attracted to the NPA will share this attitude. On the contrary, many of them may want to see Besancenot in government. In an August 2008 poll 18 percent said the Socialist Party should come to an understanding with him.22 In Germany Lafontaine’s project of a Red-Red government on his terms, ie of a coalition with the SPD in which Die Linke sets the agenda, will make a lot of sense to many of those rebelling against social liberalism. They are mistaken about this—in all probability such a government would, like the British Labour governments of the early post-war period or François Mitterrand’s presidency in 1981-3, crumble under the pressures imposed on it by capital.

It is important that revolutionaries warn against the dangers posed by the radical left participating in centre-left governments. But they should not make the fact that these formations, if they are successful, will confront the problem of participation a reason for not building them now. This is, in effect, the line taken by the German section of the Committee for a Workers’ International,23 who sought to split the west German precursor of Die Linke because of the PDS’s participation in social liberal coalitions in Berlin and elsewhere.

The role of revolutionaries

The underlying problem at work here is that it is the breach in reformism that has given the radical left its opening. How then does it try to draw in people from a reformist background while avoiding the betrayals of reformism—betrayals recapitulated in a highly concentrated way by Bertinotti’s trajectory? The LCR’s solution to the problem seems to be to install a kind of programmatic security lock—commitment to anti_capitalism and opposition to centre-left governments. But this is unlikely to work: the more successful the NPA, the more it is likely to come under reformist pressures and temptations.

One very important question in addressing this problem concerns the role played by organised revolutionary socialists within the formations of the radical left. One widely discussed answer has been provided by the model offered by the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Here existing far left organisations dissolved themselves to form a unitary socialist party. Different political currents were permitted to form organised platforms, though not to conduct open political propaganda. But the SSP had a programme with “incomplete strategic delimitations” and so was avowedly open to those with reformist politics (though the sectarian and dismissive attitude it took towards those from a Labourist background tended to inhibit this in practice). Defenders of the SSP model argued that the party would not capitulate to reformist influences thanks to the “leadership of revolutionaries”. But this begged the question of how this leadership was secured. In practice this was less by the influence of revolutionary ideas on the largely passive membership of the SSP than by highly effective factional organising by the leaders of the platform that had founded the party, the International Socialist Movement (ISM). This allowed the party to cohere so long as the ISM leadership stuck together, but when they fell out in the autumn of 2006 the result was the disintegration of the SSP itself.24

These problems were reinforced by the tendency for the parliamentary wing to predominate after the SSP’s capture of six seats in the Scottish Parliament in May 2003. As Mike Gonzalez puts it:

The election result led…to…an over-emphasis on parliamentary activity at the expense of grassroots activity. Parliaments can be a useful propaganda platform in the building of socialist organisation—as Tommy Sheridan had shown so emphatically when he was the sole member between 1999 and 2003. With six members in the parliament the party became entitled to a number of full-time research and case workers, and the commitment to the MSPs remitting half their parliamentary salary to the party added to the party’s resources. But it also reinforced the party’s bureaucratic character, and focused its attention on a parliamentary role which could not but be limited and constrained.25

The development of an overblown apparatus centred on the Holyrood Parliament reinforced the tendency to factionalism within the dominant ISM. This experience offers an important negative example for other attempts to build radical left parties. Thus the organisational strength and political cohesion of the Ligue mean that it could very easily continue to dominate the NPA, and indeed the suspicion that it will has been expressed even by some of those attracted by the project.26 It is clear that this isn’t the intention of the LCR leadership, hence their insistence on the openness of the new party. It would indeed be a disastrous mistake for revolutionary socialists to seek to dominate the NPA and its counterparts elsewhere thanks to their organisational weight. Any such attempt would severely hold back the development of the radical left. But this does not solve the problem of the struggle between left and right that is unavoidable in any dynamically developing political formation.

When it first became involved in the process of left regroupment at the beginning of the present decade, the SWP came up with its own conception of the nature of the new radical left formations. This was articulated by John Rees when he argued, “The Socialist Alliance [the precursor to Respect] is thus best seen as a united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field. It seeks to unite left reformist activists and revolutionaries in a common campaign around a minimum programme”.27 Though an innovation, this extension of the united front tactic isn’t completely unprecedented. In May 1922 the Communist International declared that “the problem of the United Political Front of Labor in the United States is the problem of the Labor Party”, a policy that led its American section, the Workers Party (WP), to participate in 1923-4 in the Federated Farmer-Labor Party founded by John Fitzpatrick, leader of the Chicago Federation of Labor.28

The conception of a united front of a particular kind informed our approach to Respect. By contrast, those on the far left in the minority that followed Galloway in splitting from Respect (mainly the English Fourth International section, the International Socialist Group and a few ex-SWP members) tended to support the SSP model and to criticise the SWP for not dissolving itself into Respect. It is extremely fortunate that we refused to liquidate the SWP, since in that case the crisis in Respect would have led, not just to the temporary electoral eclipse of the radical left in Britain, but to a far deeper fragmentation and weakening of the organised socialist left.

The idea that the NPA should be conceived as a united front of a particular kind has recently been criticised by one of the project’s main architects, François Sabado:

There isn’t a linear continuity between united front and party, just as “politics” isn’t a simple continuation of the social. There are elements of continuity but also of discontinuity, of specificities, linked precisely to political struggle… It is from this point of view that it is incorrect to consider the new party as a kind of united front. There is then a tendency to underestimate the necessary delimitations, to consider the NPA as merely an alliance or a unitary framework—even of a particular kind—and therefore to underestimate its own construction as a framework or a mediation for building the revolutionary leaderships of tomorrow. There is the risk that if we consider the NPA as a kind of united front of making it wage only united front battles. For example, we don’t make the unity of action of the entire workers’ and social movement conditional on an agreement on the question of the government; but is this a reason for the NPA to relativise a struggle over the question of government? No, we don’t think so. The NPA makes the question of government—refusal to participate in governments of class-collaboration—a delimitation of its political fight. That shows, self-evidently on this issue, that the NPA isn’t a kind of united front. Our aim to construct it as a confluence of experiences and activists doesn’t mean that we must give up seeing this party as one of the decisive links of a global political alternative and of an accumulation of class struggle and even revolutionary cadres for future crises.29

Sabado is right in two important respects. First, as he indicates in the last sentence, successfully building the radical left today is a step towards, not away from, the construction of mass revolutionary parties. Second, he is also right that the fact that radical left formations intervene in the political field shapes their character. Even if their organisational structure is that of a coalition, as that of Respect was, they need to define their global political identity by means of a programme, and function in many ways like a conventional political party, particularly when engaging in electoral activity.

But what the formula of a united front of a particular kind captures is the political heterogeneity characteristic of the contemporary radical left. Sometimes this reflects the specific origins of a particular formation—thus one of the most successful, the Left Bloc in Portugal, was founded in 1999 as a coalition of the far left, notably the ex-Maoist União Democrática Popular (UDP) and the Partido Socialista Revolucionário (PSR), the Portuguese section of the Fourth International. The successful development of the Bloc has led to the adoption of a more unitary party structure, but, if anything its internal heterogeneity has increased as the Bloc has attracted dissident elements from the strongly Stalinist Communist Party, many of whom share the same politics as the Bertinotti wing of the PRC.

This indicates that the politically diverse nature of the contemporary radical left is more than a matter of the specific history of individual formations. The particular form taken by the crisis of social democracy today has created the conditions for a convergence among elements from the reformist and revolutionary lefts in opposition to social liberalism. The fact that this political convergence is only partial, and in particular doesn’t abolish the choice between reform and revolution, demands organisational structures that, if not explicitly those of a coalition, give the different currents space to breathe and to coexist. But it also helps to explain the programmatic basis that Sabado seeks to give the NPA, which is essentially against social liberalism rather than against reformism altogether. Anyone who thinks this is a distinction without a difference should compare the Communist International’s famous “21 conditions” for membership with Sabado’s much more modest ban on participating in centre-left governments.

It is very important, as I have already noted, not to take fright at the political ambiguities inherent in the contemporary radical left. Any revolutionary worth his or her salt should throw themselves enthusiastically into building these formations. But this does not alter the fact that these ambiguities can lead to a repetition of the kind of disasters to have befallen the PRC and Respect. More positively, if the NPA is really to see what Sabado calls “an accumulation of class struggle and even revolutionary cadres for future crises”, then this is not going to happen automatically. It will require a considerable effort to train the new activists won to the NPA and its like in the revolutionary Marxist tradition. But who is going to undertake this task? Some political education can occur within the framework of the party itself. But this can only be within well defined limits; otherwise the revolutionaries in the NPA can justifiably be accused of violating the political openness of the party and seeking to exploit its structures to put over their own distinctive politics.

A related issue concerns debate within radical left formations. Both the relatively open nature of their programmes and the uncertainties and surprises of which the neoliberal era is full mean that vigorous debate is even more important than usual to clarify their tasks. But where the formations are, either formally or in practice, coalitions, a vigorous debate can threaten to upset the delicate equilibrium between the different currents. The result can be a tendency to avoid serious arguments, at least outside the relatively closed arena of the leadership bodies. The dilemmas involved are quite real. When serious differences over strategy began to develop between Galloway and the SWP after the council elections of May 2006, the SWP leadership sought to contain the dispute by limiting it to the areas most affected in east London and Birmingham. This response made sense as a way of trying to prevent the development of a crisis that would destabilise Respect, but when the crisis came anyway with Galloway’s attack on the SWP in August 2007, the result was that most of the membership of both Respect and the SWP were taken by surprise.

No simple formula can avoid this kind of difficult tactical problem. But it is possible to define a general approach. 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 politics. Both parts of this sentence deserve their proper emphasis. It is a mistake to try to define the boundaries of radical left parties too narrowly. Sinistra Critica, a far left tendency within the PRC dominated by Italian supporters of the Fourth International, broke with the PRC at the end of 2007 and ran its own candidates in the parliamentary elections. As a result, when in July 2008 Bertinotti and his supporters were defeated at the PRC congress by a coalition of more left wing currents, Sinistra Critica was no longer part of the argument. It is to be hoped that it can shift to re-establish an organised connection with the tens of thousands of activists who had hitherto looked towards the PRC.

But, while building on a broad and open basis, revolutionary socialists should maintain their own political and organisational identity. The precise form this may take will naturally vary—sometimes an independent organisation participating in a coalition, as the SWP did within the Socialist Alliance and Respect, sometimes a current in a larger organisation. A revolutionary socialist identity within the broader radical left is necessary not for reasons of narrow sectarian loyalty but because the theory and politics of revolutionary Marxism matter. They matter because they provide an understanding of the logic of capitalism as a system and because they recapitulate the accumulated revolutionary experiences of the past two centuries. Of course, the relevance of such a tradition to the present is not something that can be taken for granted. On the contrary, it has to be shown in practice, and this always involves a process of selection, interpretation and creative development of the tradition. But, because of the importance of practice, revolutionaries must retain the capacity to take their own initiatives. In other words, they should maintain their identity within the broader radical left not as a theoretical debating club but, whatever the circumstances, as an interventionist organisation.


Of course, the presence of organised revolutionaries can be a source of tension within a radical left formation. They can be targeted and denounced by the right within the party. This can be a particular issue if the revolutionaries have a relatively substantial weight, as the SWP did within Respect and as the LCR will in the NPA. The far-left elements who broke away with Galloway have sought to justify their actions by accusing the SWP of seeking to dominate Respect. This was the opposite of our intention. We would have been very happy to have been a relatively smaller force within a much larger radical left coalition. The problem was that, despite the enormous political upheaval surrounding Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, Galloway was the only leading Labour figure who was prepared to break with the party over the issue. This meant there was a structural instability built into Respect from the start. The coalition was dominated by two forces—Galloway and the SWP. This was fine so long as they worked together relatively harmoniously. But a conflict between a revolutionary organisation and a reformist politician was all too likely to develop sooner or later, and, once it happened, there were no other forces powerful enough to contain it.

This structural imbalance is a consequence of the particular form taken by the decline of social democracy today. I wrote soon after the formation of Respect in 2004:

The Labour Party is like a huge iceberg that is gradually shrinking thanks to global warming. The membership, social roots, and voting base are in pretty continuous decline. Tony Blair won a huge parliamentary majority in the 2001 general election with fewer votes than those with which Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election. But the iceberg itself, though shrinking, remains pretty cohesive. Labourism hangs together thanks to the enduring strength of the trade unions, which remain the core of its social base, the capacity of the leadership to buy off the activists through a mixture of rhetoric, patronage and very limited social reforms, and the hope against hope of MPs, party activists, and trade union officials that somehow things really will get better. Decline takes place gradually, through a process of attrition, a series of individual decisions through which demoralised activists drop out and disillusioned voters stay at home.30

This picture continues broadly to fit the accelerating decline of New Labour under Gordon Brown, as it does much of the rest of European social democracy. The social base of reformism shrinks, not thanks to organisational splits, but through a gradual wearing away. This does not alter the fact that there is a space that the radical left can fill, but it will probably take the form of quite a long-term process of electoral interventions and other campaigns that gradually attract voters and activists. And the erosion of the old reformist social base gives the extreme right an opportunity to appeal to working class people who feel disenfranchised and unrepresented, as is shown very starkly by the ugly racist forces unleashed by the victory of Berlusconi and his allies in the Italian general election of April 2008.

The general form taken by the crisis of social democracy underlines the importance of the case of Die Linke, where a real crack has taken place in the SPD monolith. This is partly a reflection of the sheer accumulated strength of German social democracy. Perry Anderson wrote of the SPD soon after its election victory in September 1998, “It is a very different party from New Labour. Twice the size, with 700,000 individual members, its culture remains noticeably working class. The atmosphere of an SPD rally in any big industrial town is closer to Labour meetings of the 1960s or 1970s than to anything in Britain today”.31 This made the shock of the Schröder government all the greater: after being relatively shielded from the worst of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, the German working class suffered, particularly in the Red-Green coalition’s second term (2002-5), a sharp attack, with the Hartz IV dismantling of unemployment benefits and an employers’ offensive that succeeded in forcing real wages down and productivity up.

This is the context that has allowed Die Linke to make such spectacular advances and Lafontaine to mount a serious attempt to revive left reformism. It is one reason why it would be unwise to claim that reformism singing its swan song, as the LCR sometimes implies, as, for example, when it declares, “Social democracy is completing its mutation. After having explained that socialism can be built step by step within the framework of the institutions of the capitalist state, it henceforth accepts its conversion to capitalism, to neoliberal policies”.32 This seems to posit a unilinear trend for social democratic parties to transform themselves into straightforwardly capitalist parties like the Democrats in the United States. As such, it is mistaken.

Reformism cannot be identified simply with specific organisations but arises from workers’ tendency, as long as they lack confidence in their ability to overturn capitalism, to limit their struggles to winning improvements within the framework of the existing system. This tendency finds political expression despite the development of social liberalism. Die Linke is one example; another is the skill with which Alec Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, has, as first minister of Scotland, succeeded, while remaining within the limits set by the neoliberal economic policy regime, in projecting his government as pursuing a more authentic social democratic programme than New Labour is any longer capable of.

Understanding this is important for immediate political reasons. The attractive power of reformist politics means there is no programmatic or organisational magic bullet that can exclude its influence from the new formations of the radical left. It is precisely for this reason that revolutionaries need to maintain their identity within these formations. The radical left has to be open to reformists if it is to fulfil its potential, but the examples of Bertinotti and Galloway should serve as a reminder that left reformists can move right as well as left.33 This is important to bear in mind in the case of Die Linke. Lafontaine has been a bulwark of the left, but, should he decide the time has come to cut a deal with the SPD, he is quite capable of turning on it brutally. But revolutionaries preserving their political and organisational autonomy should not be seen as a form of sectarian defensiveness. On the contrary, this autonomy should give us the confidence boldly to build the radical left on the broadest and most dynamic basis—but preserving an instrument that will be needed to wage the political battles that any real success will bring.

In Britain the electoral projects of the radical left have succumbed to a process of mutually assured destruction in the Scottish and London elections that will make them difficult to resurrect in the short term. Nevertheless, this setback has taken place against the background of an accelerating crisis of New Labour. One feature of this crisis is that, with a general election in prospect by mid-2010 at the latest, the trade union bureaucracy, while rallying round the government, is doing so with a visible lack of enthusiasm. The process of attrition that is diminishing Labourism’s social base is gradually wearing away its links with the organised working class. This is likely to lead, before long, to new initiatives aimed at creating a political alternative to New Labour. While bearing in mind the lessons of past attempts, revolutionaries need to be attentive to these opportunities.


1: For an assessment at an earlier stage of the radical left’s development, see Callinicos, 2004.

2: Trudell, 2007.

3: See Gonzalez, 2006, and Harman, 2008a.

4: Hayes, 2008.

5: Zappi, 2008.

6: Rifondazione, 2008.

7: See the analysis of the early stages of this process in Callinicos, 1999.

8: Galloway, 2003.

9: Kouvélakis, 2005.

10: Callinicos and Nineham, 2007.

11: See for example Galloway, July 2008.

12: On the crisis in Attac, see Wintrebert, 2007.

13: Lafontaine, 2008.

14: Phillip Gordon, “Liberté! Fraternité! Anxiety”, Financial Times, 19 January 2002.

15: The LCR has an institutionalised regime of rival political tendencies that for many years has pitted the majority of the leadership against a right wing faction led by Christian Piquet. The right are in now in disarray, partly because they supported the now discredited unitary candidacy approach, and partly because the NPA initiative has united the rest of the Ligue behind the old majority.

16: LCR, 2008.

17: See, on the LCR’s conception of the NPA, Sabado, 2008.

18: There is a detailed discussion of the Fourth International’s version in Mandel, 1979, chapter 1, while the SWP’s is restated in Harman, 2007. Henceforth, by “revolutionaries” I mean, not the adherents of a specific current, say the International Socialist Tendency or the Fourth International, but those who continue to support this conception of the revolutionary process.

19: See, for example, Harman, 2008b.

20: For an exchange on these issues, see Bensaïd and others, 2003, especially pp15-19, and Callinicos, 2003.

21: For example, Holland, 1976.

22: Zappi. 2008.

23: To which the Socialist Party in England and Wales belongs.

24: On the SSP model, see the following exchange: Rees, 2002, and Smith, 2003.

25: Gonzalez, 2006, pp69-70.

26: See, for example, the open letter by various notable anti-liberal intellectuals-Autain and others, 2008.

27: Rees, 2001, p32. See also Callinicos, 2002, and Jaffard, 2008.

28: Quoted Draper, 1985, p375. An up-to-date account of the Farmer-Labor Party, which succumbed to a combination of factionalism within the WP and Fitzpatrick and other trade union lefts getting cold feet about working with Communists, will be found in Palmer, 2007, chapters 7 and 8. Trotsky’s acerbic criticisms of the episode focus on American Communists’ support for Senator Robert LaFollette, who ran as the anti-Communist Progressive Party candidate in the 1924 presidential election, refusing Farmer-Labor endorsement, and the attempt by John Pepper, the dominant figure in the WP, to justify the policy on the basis of a populism that dissolved the differences between workers and small farmers: see Trotsky, 1970, pp119-122, 219-220.

29: Sabado, 2008.

30: Callinicos, 2004, p4.

31: Anderson, 1999.

32: LCR, 2008.

33: It is also important to note, however, that they had previously moved left. Some of those who sided with Galloway in the split in Respect criticised the SWP for breaking with him after having previously worked amicably with him. This is, for example, one of Mark Steel’s main beefs in What’s Going On? (2008). The difference is simple: in the early 2000s both Bertinotti and Galloway moved left in response to the rising movements and the SWP was able to work well with both of them. When these movements began to decline, both Bertinotti and Galloway move rightwards, with the results reviewed in this article. Confronted with this development, the SWP defended itself against Galloway’s attempt to subordinate us within Respect. This doesn’t mean it was wrong to have worked with him or with Bertinotti earlier, but it does underline the importance of revolutionaries maintaining their political and organisational independence.


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