Revolutionaries and elections

Issue: 179

Joseph Choonara

Several issues in 2023 have helped spark renewed interest in the potential for revolutionary socialists in Britain to engage in electoral work.1 These include the continued rightward shift of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer; the presence of various left-wing independents standing in local elections in May; and the departure of Nicola Sturgeon as Scottish first minister, due in part to the exhaustion of her approach to Scottish independence.2 That discussion will greatly intensify if, as now seems likely, Jeremy Corbyn announces that he will stand in Islington North against the party of which he was once leader, having already been told by Starmer that he will not be Labour’s candidate at the ­general election. Diane Abbott, another prominent left Labour MP, has also been suspended from the party, with Starmer seizing upon ill-advised comments she made on the topic of racism.3

In considering our approach to elections, those of us in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the wider revolutionary left should not simply navigate our way through hunches and short-term expedients. We must also learn from the ­historical experience of revolutionaries who have sought to engage in electoral work. The purpose of this article is to assess those experiences in a European ­context, to raise the theoretical level of discussion about electoral work and ensure that our next steps involve thoroughgoing debate on the deeper issues at stake.4

The ABC of elections

There are two major areas of concern in our consideration of electoral work. The first involves the general position of revolutionaries towards elections. The second involves a specific reading of the accumulated experiences acquired in the past three decades, both in Britain and beyond these shores, which in turn flow from a specific political conjuncture.

On the first point, the basic approach of revolutionaries to electoral work was set out by Lenin in works such as “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder over a century ago:

Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete”. That is true in the ­propaganda sense, but everybody knows that this is still a long way from ­overcoming parliamentarianism practically… We must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the working class… You must tell them the bitter truth. You must call their bourgeois democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are: prejudices. But at the same time, you must soberly follow the actual state of the class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class… As long as you are unable to disperse the bourgeois parliament and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work inside them.5

Lenin’s advice still stands. Up to the point when a revolutionary insurrection can destroy the capitalist state, socialists should seek to engage with elections and, where possible, stand candidates. This is not due to any illusion in parliamentary reform. The role of revolutionaries sitting in parliament is to propagandise for socialism, to agitate, raising the combativity and confidence of the working class, and to assist in the construction of mass revolutionary parties based primarily on extra-parliamentary activity. The ultimate goal is to dissolve parliament, as part of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class and their institutions, replacing it with a far richer form of democracy. This new form of democracy would be born of mass working-class struggle, which, at its high points, can throw up workers’ councils and similar soviet-type bodies.6

Parliament should nonetheless be used by revolutionaries in the way Lenin suggests precisely because the mass of workers, in non-revolutionary times and in parliamentary democracies, have illusions in parliament and in the potential for parliamentary reform. This makes parliamentarians important tribunes for ­socialism, and parliament and elections useful platforms for socialists. Revolutionaries standing for parliament in non-revolutionary times should be open with workers about their politics. However, this does not entail that those voting for them must accept the full revolutionary programme of the party—this would confine support to workers who have already accepted the “historical obsolescence” of parliament. Rather, revolutionaries should stand on a “minimum programme”, advocating mass workers’ struggle to achieve far-reaching reforms that begin to push against the logic of the capitalist system. As the struggle advances, so this programme would increase in radicalism. Such a programme should clearly not include support for measures with which revolutionaries could not possibly agree, such as the imposition of immigration controls.

There would be no expectation, in non-revolutionary times, that revolutionaries should attain a parliamentary majority and form a government.7 Moreover, where revolutionaries attain seats in parliament, they should avoid becoming enmeshed in unprincipled alliances or entering coalitions with pro-capitalist ­parties—of ­becoming, as one Bolivian Trotskyist programme memorably described ­worker-ministers, “vulgar pimps for the bourgeoisie”.8 In recognition of the ­pressures of electoralism, parliamentary representatives of the revolutionary party should be ­subordinated to the wider organisation, imposing the counter-pressure of ­engagement with the living struggle of workers on the parliamentarians.9

This type of position, held by Lenin and other Marxists such as Leon Trotsky, retains its validity as a set of general principles. However, for much of the past century, revolutionary socialist organisations in Britain were neither large enough nor deeply rooted enough in the working class to run for ­parliament with much credibility. The International Socialists (IS), which became the SWP in 1977, did stand candidates in 1976-8, a period in which Labour were in power and attacking workers as they sought to contain the wave of intense class struggle that had developed from the late 1960s. The IS would achieve votes in the 0.5 to 1.9 percent range in a series of parliamentary by-elections. Paul Foot, perhaps the best known member of the organisation, won only 1 percent in Birmingham Stechford, embarrassingly less than the candidate of the rival International Marxist Group. Another candidate took 1 percent in Lambeth Central in April 1978, coming in a little behind both the Workers Revolutionary Party and the “Socialist Unity” candidate.

In the wake of these results, Duncan Hallas drafted a document for the SWP’s leadership, arguing for a turn away from electoral work: “We did not go into election work primarily to get votes, but we certainly did not go in to get results like this.” The conclusion was that—at least in the overwhelming majority of constituencies where there was no serious left-wing challenge—the party should call for an “anti-Tory Labour vote”, while also criticising Labour’s policies. By the time of the 1979 general election, the turn towards direct electoral intervention by the party was dead.10 It is unlikely that standing SWP candidates today would achieve radically different results. Humiliating electoral failure would do little to advance workers’ struggle and strengthen the position of revolutionaries within the working class.

Under such conditions, and outside of those periods, discussed below, in which the SWP has participated in elections as part of broader coalitions, we have tended to argue for a vote for Labour candidates where there is no credible alternative to their left. We view this as a basic act of solidarity with the most politicised workers, who have tended, and still tend, to vote Labour. We essentially say, “We will lend you our vote to help kick out/keep out the Tories, and we ask that you lend us your solidarity in strikes and other struggles mobilising the working class.” We combine this with propaganda explaining why Labourism cannot fundamentally transform capitalism.11 The precise balance between enthusiasm and criticism varies as the consciousness of workers and the policies and leadership of the Labour Party change, but the general critique of Labourism as a strategy transcends the question of who happens to be leading the party. A similar approach can be generalised to other social-democratic and left-reformist parties in other contexts.

Social democracy’s rightwards shift

The second much more specific factor shaping consideration of this question is the way in which social democracy in Europe (and elsewhere, but the focus here is on Europe) has tended to shift rightwards during the post-war period, weakening its base within the working class and increasingly clashing openly with the aspirations of workers. This has been an intensifying pattern in Britain over recent decades, during which, particularly under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, “New Labour” explicitly endorsed a version of the neoliberal policy consensus.12 The Corbyn years represented a partial exception to Labour’s rightward march, in which the party leadership swung to the left without breaking with the logic of Labourism and its emphasis on parliamentary politics. With the collapse of Corbynism and the election of Starmer as party leader, the pre-Corbyn pattern has resumed.

This pattern, in Britain as in many other countries, has created a significantly wider space to the left of social democracy that revolutionaries have sought to fill using a variety of tactical approaches. There were, broadly speaking, two historical phases that generated forces capable of mounting such a challenge.

The first came with the eruption of the movement against neoliberal globalisation from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, which, after 2001, also involved major mobilisations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.13 For the most outward-looking forces on the far left, including the components of the International Socialist Tendency, in which the SWP participates, and those of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, this revival of systemic challenges to capitalism created a context for left regroupment.14 This operated at different levels: potential regroupment of revolutionaries; broad left-wing electoral challenges extending beyond revolutionaries; and a variety of intermediate levels, such as regroupment based on a shared “anti-capitalist” approach. In many of the cases discussed below, organisations originating in the Committee for a Workers’ International, the international grouping ­associated with the Militant Tendency (later the Socialist Party) in Britain, were also engaged in discussions about regroupment. For them, the attraction was not so much the emergence of a new anti-capitalist milieu, but rather a mistaken view that organisations such as Labour had flipped from being the potential bases of mass revolutionary parties to becoming straightforwardly pro-capitalist parties, creating the space for a new workers’ party.15

A second phase of left-wing challenges to social democracy came after the 2008-9 economic crisis. Now the context was that of austerity being adopted across much of the advanced capitalist world, including countries with mainstream left parties in power, and the rise of large protest movements against the resulting ­hardship and the longer-term inequalities engendered by capitalism. This gave impetus to new projects to give political expression to these struggles and also considerably increased the popularity of some existing radical left-wing electoral organisations.

There are two important points about both phases. The first is that, although we have seen powerful social movements emerge, the level of sustained ­working-class struggle has, compared to earlier eras in the history of capitalism, remained relatively low. There are partial exceptions, such as Greece after the 2008-9 crisis and France both in 2010 and again today. These help to explain the breakthroughs made by formations of the radical left in these contexts, as is discussed below. However, we have not yet seen a generalised upsurge in class struggle and class confidence comparable with the period bracketed by the French general strike of 1968 and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, let alone that of the period after the First World War, which saw revolutionary situations develop across much of Europe. This matters because the level of self-activity of workers is among the most crucial determinants of the influence of revolutionary socialist politics.

Second, and related to this, the field to the left of social democracy has not been open exclusively to revolutionaries—nor were revolutionaries, given the scale of their organisations, likely to fill it alone. By the late 1990s, the polarisation of politics—the widespread rejection of the neoliberal ­consensus adopted by centre-left and centre-right parties—had created the basis for a range of radical left-wing challenges to traditional social democracy, appealing to those who still accepted, in principle, that capitalism could be reformed. As a result, revolutionaries often had to decide where they stood in relation to new left-reformist organisations and currents.

Corbynism, which developed in 2015 with Corbyn’s capture of the leadership of Labour, appears at first glance an exception to this growth of left-reformist ­parties. The resilience of Labourism in Britain and the related failure of earlier efforts at left regroupment, the relative historical weakness of the radical left beyond social democracy, and the “first past the post” electoral system all militated against the emergence of a new left-reformist organisation. Nonetheless, Corbynism fits within a broader pattern in which challenges from the radical left have often been dominated by versions of left-reformism—in this context within an established social-democratic party, indeed one with a highly entrenched right wing.16

The persistence of reformism

The rise of left-reformism reflects a wider issue, which is crucial to what follows. The problem of reformism persists, despite the failures and betrayals of various reformist parties. This is because reformism, though embodied in organisations, is, at root, not a product of organisation but of the prevailing forms of working-class consciousness under capitalism. The common sense absorbed by workers under capitalism—who have known no other form of society and are subject to the domination of capitalist forces over which they appear to have little real control—involves at least a partial acceptance of the system in its current, seemingly naturalised, form. Workers often reject aspects of the system, and they understand that aspects can be challenged or changed, based on their own experiences of struggle or those communicated to them by those around them. This leads to a contradictory amalgam of ideas, dubbed “contradictory consciousness” by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.17

This means that most attempts by workers to fight back begin with calls to “reform” the system. Even in revolutionary situations, workers do not flip overnight from reformist to revolutionary consciousness. Uprisings such as the Russian Revolution of 1905, and many others since, began with demands for “reform”. As Trotsky put it in his history of the 1917 revolution, workers move towards ­revolutionary ideas through a process of “successive approximation”, as reformist channels are exhausted and revolutionaries intervene to win the mass of workers to their ranks.18 This is why revolutionaries must engage in struggles that fall well short of revolution, showing that workers can win reforms through their own collective efforts. Conversely, though, the impulse towards reform can be channelled towards efforts to introduce “reforms from above” through organisations such as Labour.

It is quite true that, compared to the period of the long boom following the Second World War, the capacity of the system to grant reforms, and the willingness of mainstream political leaders to contemplate offering them, is much reduced. Nonetheless, the persistence of reformist consciousness within the working class means that reformist currents and organisations can reconstitute themselves despite the reduced scope for reforms.

Varieties of left electoral intervention

Given that the revolutionary left lacks the size and social base to fully occupy the terrain to the left of traditional social democracy, it often becomes attractive to make some kind of arrangement with reformist workers, reformist leaders or reformist organisations to mount an electoral challenge. This is not unique to electoral work. Indeed, much of the activity of revolutionaries involves such arrangements, which are the whole basis of the “united front”, discussed below. The SWP’s anti-fascist work, for instance, routinely involves working with reformist figures and reformist workers, while pushing for militant tactics within the resulting campaign. Yet, the context of elections, the terrain on which reformists feel most comfortable and tend to be most successful, poses a particular challenge, as shall become apparent.

Insofar as electoral formations are dominated by ­revolutionaries, revived or reconstituted reformist forces can exert a powerful external pressure, ­squeezing the electoral formation or forcing revolutionaries to adapt to electoralism. Insofar as they are dominated by reformists, this exerts a powerful internal ­pressure, often ­self-reinforcing if electoral success is achieved, again ­encouraging ­revolutionaries to adapt. In cases seeking to draw together revolutionaries and reformists with neither dominating, reformism often acts as both an internal and external pressure.

The rest of this article will consider three broad families of approaches to revolutionaries’ electoral interventions over recent decades, showing how these pressures play out in practice. These families are: (1) formations with an explicitly reformist orientation in which revolutionaries seek to intervene; (2) formations in which revolutionaries seek to create a “united front of a special type”, ­preserving the independence of revolutionaries within a broader reformist electoral coalition; (3) “strategically non-delimited” formations that claim to go beyond old formulae that distinguish between reformist and revolutionary organisations, and in which revolutionaries often seek to retain an inbuilt hegemony.

Revolutionaries in reformist parties

The entry of revolutionaries into explicitly reformist parties has a long history in Britain.19 In particular, the Militant Tendency, from the 1960s onwards, developed an approach in which entry into the Labour Party was not simply a short-term expedient to recruit members, but a long-term focus.20 This was premised on the idea that a rise in the level of class struggle would lead workers to see the necessity of political action: “Once they take the road of political action, there is only one way in which they can go, and that is to try to change the organisation that was built up by the unions—to move into Labour with the purpose of transforming it to meet their needs”.21 This was combined with the notion that a transition to socialism could be initiated through “an Enabling Bill passed by parliament to nationalise the 200 monopolies, banks and insurance companies that control 80 to 85 percent of the economy”.22 The SWP rejected both the idea that workers moving into sustained mass struggle would make the Labour Party their main focus and that nationalisation of the economy could be equated with socialism.23

Entryism experienced something of a revival under Corbyn, with several small revolutionary socialist groupings going into Labour while those already inside sought to attract Corbynistas. However, there has been no substantive organised break with Labourism following Corbynism. Whatever their aspirations going in, and whatever the minor incremental gains, none of these groupings emerged with a mass following of Corbynistas won to revolutionary politics.

More interesting than these British experiences are those of revolutionaries within reformist organisations to the left of traditional social democracy. Three notable examples are considered here: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in the Spanish state and Die Linke in Germany, each of which achieved growing support in the period after the 2008-9 economic crisis.24 They each demonstrate the way in which, in the context of an ongoing polarisation of politics, left-reformist formations can rise to prominence extremely rapidly, but also find themselves tested harshly as they begin to approach or obtain power. This reflects their reformist nature: whatever their claims, their tendency is systematically to subordinate ­aspirations towards mass extra-parliamentary activity to continued electoral ­success and an attempt to win reforms through the capitalist state. The leaders of these ­organisations, sometimes explicitly, are seeking to reconstruct social democracy on a more left-wing basis than existing parties, though under conditions in which the capacity of capitalism to grant reforms is rather limited.25

Syriza offers the clearest example. It was founded in 2004 as a coalition of already existing groups, at the centre of which was Synaspismos, which had emerged out of the two wings of the Communist Party of Greece.26 The Eurozone crisis that erupted from 2010, and the intense class struggle that ­followed, pulverised the old ­social-democratic formation, PASOK, which had been in power since 2009, and created the space for Syriza to expand its support. Eventually, in 2015, Syriza’s Aléxis Tsípras would become the first figure from a party to the left of the ­social-democratic mainstream to win the leadership of a Western European ­country. However, faced with pressure from Greek capital and the broader ­institutions of European capitalism—refracted through the European Commission and European Central Bank—Tsípras ­capitulated. His imposition of the bailout ­programme demanded by Greece’s creditors led to uproar on the left of his party.27

Syriza contained numerous far-left currents, including the Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA; Διεθνιστική Εργατική Αριστερά), a small split from the SWP’s Greek sister group, the Socialist Workers Party (SEK; Σοσιαλιστικό Εργατικό Κόμμα). DEA leaders denounced as sectarian those operating outside the ­framework of Syriza, including SEK and other parts of the anti-capitalist coalition in which it participated, Antarsya. Prior to Syriza coming to power in 2015, the DEA advocated what it called a “left government”, with a programme of demands supportive of working-class aspirations “as a transitional step towards socialist rupture”.28 Immediately after Tsípras’s victory, it issued a statement in which it claimed:

In these new circumstances, the role of Syriza as a political party is irreplaceable. The functioning of its organisational bodies and membership, with collective participation and democracy throughout the party, is not an optional extra, but a precondition for the final victory of Syriza, and the final victory of the whole of the left and of our people.29

Another Marxist within Syriza, Stathis Kouvelakis, described the outlook of the Left Platform, in which groups such as DEA participated. It saw “the whole prospect of accessing governmental power as a means of triggering social mobilisation”. He added that decisions on whether to take government positions would depend on the line of an incoming Syriza administration. Kouvelakis endorsed a position of “seizing power by elections, but combining this with social mobilisations” and “breaking with the notion of dual power as an insurrectionary attack on the state from outside, because the state has to be seized from the inside and outside, from above and also from below”.30

In the end, nothing of the kind occurred. Much of the far left within Syriza felt forced to break with the party in the wake of its capitulation, forming a new group, Popular Unity. This group promptly lost its 25 members of parliament in elections held a few months after Tsípras’s capitulation. The success of revolutionaries who present themselves as representatives of a left-reformist party does not necessarily translate into success outside that formation—even when they create a new and even-more-left-reformist party.

Tsípras’s trajectory and the difficulties this would cause for revolutionaries in his organisation should not have come as a surprise.31 The issues were already apparent in 2012, when Syriza became the main opposition party in parliament. Success reinforced the left-reformist character of the project envisaged by the majority of the leadership, with one party spokesperson stating bluntly, “We cannot speak the same way as we did when we had 4 percent of the vote now that we have 27 percent”.32 Commenting on the formulations of Kouvelakis and Costas Lapavitsas, who saw a potential Syriza victory as creating the terrain for a possible rupture with the Eurozone in the context of popular mobilisations, Alex Callinicos noted at the time:

The thought seems to be that the very logic of the struggle would drive a Syriza government in the right direction… To the extent that Syriza…were to implement measures against austerity this would need very powerful pressure from below… Yet, struggles…do not just happen: they depend on the conscious agency of organised political actors.33

The dominance within Syriza of a reformist approach, focused on challenging for office within the structures of parliamentary democracy, and the inability of the left within the organisation to articulate a clear and coherent alternative, proved to be obstacles too big to overcome. Affiliation to Syriza would, in practice, enormously restrict the far left’s “capacity for independent action”.34

Podemos offers a similarly stark cautionary tale. The organisation was founded by two political scientists, Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, in 2014. Its meteoric rise came, like that of Syriza, as an expression of intense social struggles in the Spanish state in the wake of the Eurozone crisis. In 2011, this took the form of mass ­occupations of public squares by the “indignados” movement, in what amounted to a rejection of the country’s entire political set-up. Podemos, heavily influenced by the post-Marxist ideas of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, advocated what Mouffe called a “left populism”. This sought to mobilise what Podemos’s leaders viewed as heterogeneous movements of people against what they called “la casta” (“the caste”), which extended beyond the elite to encompass existing parties of the left.35 Anticapitalistas, a group linked to the Fourth International, played a role in Podemos from early on, seeing it around the time of its foundation as “the vehicle whereby citizens’ indignation is expressed” and “a unique opportunity to break at the root the miseries inherited from the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco and the 40-year offensive of neoliberal and oligarchic capitalism”.36

However, as the struggle from below receded, Podemos would place an increasingly ruthless focus on electoral success, while also tightening its internal structure, moving away from the loose “circles” through which it had previously organised and towards a centralised leadership.37 This allowed the leadership to shift the party rightward, for instance, allowing two social democrats to draft its economic programme, which now focused on “short-term pragmatic ­proposals” rather than any radical rupture with Spanish capitalism.38 By 2016, Iglesias could declare that “things are changed from the institutions… That idiocy that we used to say when we were on the extreme left, that things are changed in the street and not in the institutions, is a lie”.39 The shift in policy did not pay off. The decline of struggle and the re-stabilisation of the country’s economy as the Eurozone crisis receded limited the party’s share of the vote, pushing it towards an ever-firmer embrace of the traditional left. This led, initially, to the formation of an electoral coalition with the Communist Party-led United Left along with various other left-wing parties. Then, in 2017, Iglesias was able to force through a further shift to the right, sidelining his former ally, Errejón, and moving towards a far less ambiguous embrace of Keynesianism and social democracy.40 By 2019, Iglesias was advocating a “progressive coalition” with the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español), the country’s major social-democratic force. This coalition took office in early 2020. Podemos was now in government alongside a party it had earlier taught its supporters to despise as part of the “caste”.

This was the last straw for the Anticapitalistas group. It departed, stating: “Again, a left-wing project subordinates itself in the short term to the logic of the lesser evil, renouncing its policies in exchange for scant, non-decisive influence in the council of ministers. Despite government propaganda, the coalition’s policies do not break with the orthodox economic framework”.41 A video posted on Twitter by Iglesias showed him with Anticapitalistas leader Teresa Rodríguez, announcing what amounted to a “conscious uncoupling”.42 A fairly sombre part of the Anticapitalistas bulletin from December 2021 reflected on how the organisation was reorienting:

Despite the defeat of the previous cycle (that is, the period of the Eurozone crisis and the rise of Podemos), our organisation has made some important “relative” progress… For the first time in many decades, a small anti-capitalist organisation has achieved a certain public presence, formed links with sectors we did not have before and consolidated a territorially expanded cadre… Our weaknesses are also evident. We are having more and more difficulties presenting our views in the media, and our network of cadres needs to be renewed and reactivated.43

Unlike Podemos and Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke (“The Left”) has not attained governmental power at a national level. The party formed in 2007 from a merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS; Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus), which emerged from the ruins of the former Stalinist state party in East Germany, and an organisation called The Electoral Alternative—Work and Social Justice (WASG; Wahlalternative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit). WASG was ­created when sections of Germany’s mainstream left-wing party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD; Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), broke away in the context of disenchantment at the coalition government led by the SPD alongside the Green Party. This split from the SPD counted among its number Oskar Lafontaine, a former party chair and, briefly, a finance minister in the ­coalition government. WASG also drew in a layer of anti-capitalist activists, including the members of the SWP’s sister organisation, Linksruck (“Left Turn”).

Within months of its foundation, Die Linke had 70,000 members, making it the third largest party in Germany, and it soon took between 11 and 14 percent in polls. From the outset, there were tensions within the party; left-wing social ­democrats and trade unionists predominated in former West Germany, while those associated with the PDS held sway in the East, where they had large numbers of councillors. The PDS had combined a “socialism from above” outlook, inherited from East Germany’s Communist past, with an engagement in ­community ­politics.44 The PDS was already in a coalition government in the federal state of Berlin, a pattern of collaboration with social democracy that would persist, ­tarnishing Die Linke’s left credentials when its councillors accepted the ­implementation of cuts and other attacks on workers. Many of the former WASG leaders also remained open to coalition at national level with the wider left, as long as a government was formed on a left-wing, social-democratic basis.

Despite these problems, much of the revolutionary left participated in Die Linke from the start. Linksruck helped create a new current within Die Linke, based around the Marx21 magazine, from which it took its name. Marx21 was not formally part of the International Socialist Tendency, and its leadership contained figures from beyond the International Socialist tradition. This, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably a mistake, if an understandable one, reflecting the spirit of unity fostered by the anti-capitalist movement that had emerged by the mid-2000s. Ambiguity on key issues such as the role of the trade union bureaucracy and the nature of Stalinism hampered the formation of a clear revolutionary perspective within the wider reformist organisation.

Operating in the framework of Die Linke also had other implications. Rather than Marx21 focusing on taking its own initiatives, much of the revolutionaries’ activity was channelled through Die Linke’s structures. This had advantages if support for initiatives could be achieved rapidly via these structures, but it often inhibited the sharp, interventionist approach characteristic of effective ­revolutionary groups with a coherent leadership. Still, Die Linke initially provided a conducive environment for revolutionaries, drawing a big audience around the far left. Marx21 members obtained parliamentary seats as part of Die Linke, which had a vibrant political culture in which Marx21 could engage in debate and recruit supporters.

Up to the 2017 federal elections, Die Linke performed well electorally, generally winning about a tenth of the vote nationally. Yet, things changed dramatically in the 2021 elections, when the party’s vote halved, falling below 5 percent and ­causing it to lose 30 of its 69 members of parliament. The pattern until then had been marked by declining support for parties of both the centre right and centre left. This changed when Angela Merkel departed as chancellor and her centre-right successors failed to win public backing. In this context, the SPD recognised the need to shift left to maximise its votes and it, together with the Greens, experienced a sudden upswing in support as the 2021 elections loomed. The limited revival of mainstream social democracy squeezed the left reformists.

At the same time, there had been a strengthening of the radical right in German politics, with the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD; Alternative für Deutschland). These twin pressures impacted upon the leaders of Die Linke. Rather than presenting the party as a radical alternative to the establishment, much of its leadership became fixated on the prospect of a Red-Red-Green coalition with the mainstream left, thus becoming keen to emphasise Die Linke’s respectability and willingness to govern. Yet, this was self-defeating. Why vote Die Linke if it would simply lead to a government dominated by the SPD? Supporters deserted Die Linke in droves for the more credible reformist alternatives; 1.4 million votes shifted to the SPD and Greens.45 Worse still, the party was damaged by the attempts of Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke’s most prominent leader, to accommodate to racism and nationalism in a misconceived attempt to revive the party’s challenge to the establishment.46 She identified the AfD’s initial electoral breakthrough in 2017 as a result of the left moving away from workers’ concerns, particularly over ­immigration. A shift to the right on this question should, she proposed, be combined with a “realistic left politics”.47 Wagenknecht’s faction failed to win representation on the party’s executive at Die Linke’s congress in June 2022, but she continued to present her criticisms of the organisation in public. Added to this were fierce debates around the war in Ukraine and German weapons deliveries.

Where does this leave revolutionaries such as the Marx21 current? The long-term perspective of Marx21 was articulated by one of its theoreticians, Volkhard Mosler, during talks to unite WASG with the PDS. He was asked what to make of members of the PDS in Berlin pushing through cuts and privatisations:

We are at the beginning of a historic process that will take some time, and people will learn through struggle, and we need a house where the common experience can be interpreted together. This is why we need a big coalition party. To split on the Berlin issue now is to make the same mistake as leftists like Antonie Pannekoek did in the Netherlands in 1910, when they took 500 people out of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, leaving 35,000 with the right. Rosa Luxemburg took a different, correct position when she kept the Spartacus League inside the Independent Social Democrats, saying we have to go through the experience with the masses and not be outside the process.48

How useful is the analogy? The Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD; Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) was a mass centrist organisation that was expelled from the SPD in the run-up to the 1918 German Revolution.49 As the country was convulsed with revolution, Luxemburg’s much smaller Spartacus League, which was initially part of the USPD, could lead huge demonstrations and gain a hearing from genuine workers’ and soldiers’ councils. In this context, the Spartakusbund actually broke with the USPD at the end of 1918, helping to establish a German Communist Party. It was after this, in the ­context of a counter-revolutionary SPD government, that the USPD swelled in size, further radicalising as it did so. In December 1920, the centrist party split, and around half of its members fused with the Communist Party in order to fulfil the criteria required to join the Communist International established by Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky.50 By the time this mass Communist Party had emerged, Luxemburg was already dead, killed when the government provoked ­revolutionary workers into a premature uprising that her small and inexperienced band of Communists could neither prevent nor lead into an orderly retreat.51

Aside from issues of historical accuracy, the analogy is a rather strained one. Die Linke did not break with the SPD under the pressure of a revolutionary uprising of workers; its politics were a good deal to the right of the USPD during its process of radicalisation, decidedly reformist rather than centrist. It is also unclear whether Marx21’s members were fully won to the idea that its project was to lead people into a new revolutionary formation by breaking with Die Linke under suitably favourable circumstances. In the event, anyway, such circumstances never materialised—and now Die Linke is experiencing a deep crisis. By early 2023, Marx21 was also gripped by internal debates, reflecting how a part of its leadership seems to have oriented on sections of the trade union bureaucracy.52 It remains to be seen what will emerge from the resulting debates in the Marx21 network, but it is unlikely to be an enlarged revolutionary party.

The “united front of a special type”

During the period in which the SWP was most intensively engaged with electoral projects in Britain, from 2000 to 2008, the theoretical framing adopted was that of a “united front of a special type”.53 This was seen at the time as a way of preserving the independence of the revolutionary party within a broader formation with an explicitly reformist orientation, with the hope that the types of issues identified in the previous section could be avoided.

The tactic of the united front was developed by Trotsky, Lenin and their co-thinkers in the wake of the Russian Revolution. They advocated for it through the Communist International, which they established in 1919. In comments aimed primarily at the newly formed French Communist Party, Trotsky argued that once they had successfully broken with social democracy, the revolutionaries had to “seek for organisational avenues to the end that, at every given moment, joint and coordinated action between the Communist and non-Communist (including Social Democratic) working masses” could be achieved.54 Trotsky responded to the question of whether the resulting united front should extend only to reformist workers or also include reformist leaders:

If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would, of course, be the best thing in the world. However, then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form. The question arises from this: that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organisations and join us.55

The approach poses a dilemma for the reformist leaders: “The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade union bureaus, the arbitration boards and the ministerial ante-chambers”.56 This should place revolutionaries at an advantage. If the reformist leaders refuse to work with the revolutionaries, their lack of seriousness in defending workers’ interests can be exposed. If, on the other hand, they accept the appeal for unity, this can create the potential to draw reformist workers, who look to these leaders, into an organisational relationship with revolutionaries. Then, based on their common struggles, the revolutionaries can prove to these workers the superiority of their ideas and tactics over those of the reformist leaders. Finally, Trotsky warned:

Any sort of organisational agreement that restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us… It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others and that we are more audacious and resolute.57

This approach would later be generalised by Trotsky in his writings on the fight against fascism in Germany.58 The united front has formed the bedrock for much of the activity of the SWP, including two of the big successes of the revolutionary left in post-war Britain: the Anti-Nazi League and the Stop the War Coalition.

There were several potential advantages of adapting such an approach to electoral work. The goal of the SWP’s electoral interventions in the 2000s was to break the historic hold of Labourism over workers, which at critical moments had held back and helped to contain class struggle. Breaking up Labourism could ultimately result in the creation of a larger radical-left formation, with revolutionaries playing a prominent role. However, if this were not simply to reproduce the problem of Labourism in a new form, it would be necessary for a larger and better implanted revolutionary left to emerge from this process. Built into the dynamic of these new formations was therefore the necessity not simply for fusions but also splits. Preserving the capacity of revolutionaries to discuss and organise independently made this perspective more credible.

A second advantage reflected the fact that the electoral arena is only one of those within which revolutionary socialists operate; indeed, it is often, particularly in moments of heightened class struggle, one of secondary importance. Preserving the independence of the revolutionaries would potentially allow other forms of united front activity with workers and their reformist representatives, even if they were not yet prepared to conclude an electoral alliance with revolutionaries. For example, the fact that the SWP worked with one group of reformists to challenge Labour electorally did not preclude it working within Unite Against Fascism, which drew on support from figures still wedded to Labour.59

These are genuine advantages. Yet, it became apparent by the mid-2000s that the united front approach did not overcome one of the central issues revolutionaries face when engaging in joint electoral work with reformists. To understand why this is, we can summarise the logic of the united front tactic with four points.

First, revolutionaries seek alliances with reformist organisations and their leaders to undertake common activity.

Second, if the approach is a credible one, and the reformist leaders refuse, their lack of seriousness in defending the working class is exposed and revolutionaries can seek to mobilise workers over the heads of their leaders. If the approach is accepted, larger number of workers will be brought into contact with the revolutionary party through common activity.

Third, the revolutionary party can demonstrate its superior tactics, ­theoretical insights and determination, relative to those of the reformists, through this common activity.

Fourth, not only will the class struggle advance through this activity but, crucially, the revolutionary party will grow and deepen its implantation in the working class.

Applying the united front model to electoral work has little impact on the first and second points. The argument breaks down at the third point. The success of electoral work is measured primarily through winning elections. This involves class struggle only in a mediated and especially tepid way; election campaigns typically take the form of persuading individual workers to cast their vote for the left at the ballot box. This is in stark contrast to the other activities in which revolutionaries engage. For instance, during a strike, militant methods—prioritising collective rank and file struggle over negotiation and compromise—are generally superior if workers want to win significant gains. Similarly, in combatting far-right street movements, the revolutionary approach (mass mobilisation of workers to break the confidence of fascists and separate them from wider layers of softer racists) has repeatedly proven effective. One can imagine an election in a revolutionary period involving the collective mobilisation of workers on a large scale but, in normal times, elections typically reward opportunism and pandering to less politicised layers of workers, not simply appealing to the minority breaking with mainstream ideas to the left. This is one reason Labour has been able to effectively appeal to workers over several generations—it has little hesitation in making concessions to the existing state of consciousness across the working class.

Being able to recruit a few members and highlight key issues may convince revolutionaries that our efforts are not entirely in vain, but these are usually less meaningful metrics for the reformist workers taking part in electoral work with us.

Thus, “united fronts of a special type”, through their very logic, offer an advantage to reformists over revolutionaries. Revolutionaries might seek to compensate for this by pouring ever greater efforts into electoral work—to prove their superiority through their greater activism and resolve. However, the more successful revolutionaries are in constructing such electoral formations and the closer they come to actually winning elections, the greater the weight of reformist elements is likely to be. Successful electoral organisations naturally attract those seeking to exercise power through elected office. Moreover, these efforts can, over time, distort the activity of the revolutionary party itself. At worst, the united front can become a bridge out of the revolutionary party, rather than a bridge into it, as it adapts to electoralism. Even short of this, it can undermine the party’s orientation on other areas of struggle, weakening its ability to develop a generalised revolutionary politics.

The key instance that illustrates the point is that of Respect.60 Respect was a successor organisation to the Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance had formed towards the end of the 1990s, emerging out of a network of left-wing forces seeking to give expression to the discontent over New Labour, which had taken office under Blair in 1997. Central to the initiative was the Socialist Party, at that time the main successor to the Militant Tendency in Britain. Having seen its expulsion from Labour as evidence that it was in effect just another capitalist party, the Socialist Party sought to create a new mass workers’ party in which it could continue to practice entryism.

The impetus for the SWP, along with other much smaller Trotskyist groups such as the International Socialist Group (linked to the Fourth International), Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, to join in 1999 was the ­prospect of a significant break with Labour, focused initially on London. In the capital, Ken Livingstone, who had been the left-wing Labour leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, was now being denied the chance to run for the party as a candidate for mayor of London. He announced what would be an ­ultimately ­successful campaign to win the mayoralty as an independent.61 The London Socialist Alliance stood candidates to the left of Labour in elections to the newly formed London Assembly while calling for a vote for Livingstone for mayor.

The result was a modest success. The London Socialist Alliance secured just 1.6 percent in the London-wide list, but there were notable breakthroughs in some of the separate constituency-based elections, where it won up to 7 percent, well above the “Trot vote” typically expected by far-left candidates. Three of the four best results were in constituencies where SWP members stood: 7.0 percent in North East London; 6.2 in Lambeth and Southwark; and 4.0 percent in City and East London.62 These results reflected the convergence between the popular mood around Livingstone’s campaign and back-breaking work by activists. SWP branches were shut down to “free up” comrades to leaflet constituencies, and the party formed the core of many of these campaigns, placing considerable stress on the organisation. There was some internal disquiet over this electoral turn and the deprioritising of party branches, particularly once this spread from the capital to the organisation as a whole after the London elections. However, while there was electoral success, complaints were relatively muted. Members who disagreed tended to drop out, reduce their activity or keep their heads down and focus on other campaigns.

The experience in London gave confidence for the Socialist Alliance to stand in 98 constituencies in the subsequent general election in June 2001. It received an average vote of 1.7 percent, not far from what the SWP achieved in various constituencies in the 1970s. However, there were again some much better results; the best was 7 percent for the Socialist Party member and former Labour MP Dave Nellist in Coventry North East, but some candidates, including SWP members, also achieved credible results, particularly in London.63

Internally, the Socialist Alliance was riven with political disagreements. It was, organisationally, a coalition of mostly Trotskyist groups, alongside some prominent independent leftists attracted by the notion of a unified left alternative to Labourism.64 The Socialist Party walked out when “one member, one vote” was introduced, fearing that this would lead to the domination of the Alliance the SWP, by far the largest component. Indeed, the numerical preponderance of SWP members suggests the attempt to build a broad united front with a large layer of reformists had only limited success.

The SWP recognised the limitations of the Socialist Alliance in this regard, and soon much of its core would be absorbed into Respect, which was launched in January 2004. This was an attempt to give political expression to the vast anti-war movement, in which the Stop the War Coalition, initiated by the SWP and others, was the most prominent organisation (alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain). A hint of what was to come was seen in May 2003 when, a few weeks after the invasion of Iraq, Michael Lavalette, standing on a Socialist Alliance ticket, but in the context of powerful anti-war sentiment, was elected to Preston council in Lancashire. This victory involved mobilising, among others, significant numbers of ­working-class Muslim voters within the ward. Respect has been falsely caricatured as an ­alliance between “Islamists” and the left, but it is absolutely true that its largest ­breakthroughs were in areas with large Muslim populations that could be won over to a left-wing, anti-war platform alongside non-Muslim workers. A central figure in forging this alliance was George Galloway. Today, Galloway promotes what he describes as an “anti-woke”, “patriotic” class politics via his Workers Party of Britain. Back then, he was a firebrand MP, one of the most celebrated orators of the anti-war movement and the most prominent figure to be expelled by Labour for opposition to the Iraq War. He was already strongly identified with a left-wing, anti-imperialist stance towards wars prosecuted by the United States and Britain as well as with staunch opposition to Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

The decision to unite with Galloway was predicated on the possibility of a wider break within the monolith of British Labourism.65 That break never came. Although the war and the mobilisation against it accelerated the chipping away of Labour’s support, with plenty of individual members leaving the party, no MPs followed Galloway. Respect did attract some other prominent figures; well-known ­environmentalist George Monbiot was a founding member, but he left a few weeks later when it became clear that the organisation would challenge the Green Party at elections.66 Salma Yaqoob, a young Muslim activist who had come to prominence in the Birmingham branch of the Stop the War Coalition, was another founder and, unlike Monbiot, stayed in the organisation for around a decade. However, the resilience of Labourism meant that the SWP remained the key organised force on the ground in most localities—except where individuals such as Galloway and Yaqoob could build their own independent bases of support.

Respect would win 1.7 percent nationally in elections to the European Parliament elections in June 2004, the same as the Socialist Alliance had achieved, but it polled far higher in London, where there had now been repeated left-of-Labour ­challenges. In the London Assembly elections, Respect came within 0.3 percent of the 5 percent threshold needed to gain election, which would have handed Lindsey German, then a leading SWP member and convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, a seat. Respect’s vote was especially concentrated in the City and East ­constituency, ­covering a number of parliamentary constituencies in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham, where it won 15 percent. These areas contained large numbers of Muslim workers, mostly of Bangladeshi origin, many in the process of breaking with Labour.67 In council elections, Oliur Rahman, a Muslim socialist who had joined Respect, took the St Dunstan’s and Stepney Green ward in Tower Hamlets. A month later, Respect fielded candidates in parliamentary by-elections in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South, again both areas with large numbers of working-class Muslims, winning 6.3 percent and 12.7 percent respectively. Then, in 2005, Galloway won the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow. Yaqoob also came within 10 percent of her Labour rival in a Birmingham constituency, while credible votes were also achieved elsewhere in East London.

Galloway’s victory cemented his authority in Respect, and this increasingly shaped the character of the organisation. The following year, a slate of candidates in local council elections won 16 seats, heavily concentrated in Tower Hamlets. This paved the way for a major crisis in the organisation, polarising it between the SWP and Galloway’s supporters. The argument emerged into the open when Galloway wrote a letter to Respect’s national council in autumn 2007, advocating for the creation of a national organiser to work alongside the national secretary, a position held by John Rees, who was then a SWP member. A response by the SWP at the time noted:

Respect was conceived as a pluralistic coalition and therefore has always been based on compromises among its main constituent parts. The SWP has made plenty of compromises and is ready to make more in the future, but we fear that what is being demanded of us now would amount to the subordination of the socialist left within Respect… Unfortunately, Labour has not suffered the kind of mass defection that took place in Germany, with trade union leaders and prominent members of the SPD breaking away to create Die Linke… This made Respect disproportionately dependent on the excellent support it won from Muslims… It is the effort of the SWP, in response to this weakness, to widen and diversify Respect’s working-class support that George and his allies have been attacking.68

By now, the anti-war tide was ebbing. Galloway was doing what a pragmatic reformist politician might be expected to do: looking for a way to buttress support for what had become a relatively successful electoral vehicle. At the height of the anti-war movement, the SWP were useful foot soldiers and agreed with Galloway on the central political question of the day. Now, however, Galloway had his own localised base of support, and an organised revolutionary socialist force was an obstacle to the political positions he believed would win him elections. Already, in 2005, there had been skirmishes as Galloway sought to promote various Muslim notables who he thought could mobilise sections of the local populace. They included millionaire restaurateurs and building contractors with little discernible interest in socialism. Similarly, in the run-up to 2006 council elections, there was pressure to favour standing Bengali men, some with dubious political positions, over socialists and female candidates. Similar arguments had developed in Birmingham by 2007.69 These arguments had been contained but now erupted into the open, coming as a shock to many SWP members outside the leadership or the local Respect groups in East London and Birmingham.

By November 2007, Respect had split. The part led by the SWP eventually stood candidates as the “Left List”, getting a derisory 0.7 percent for Lindsey German in the London mayoral elections and less than 1 percent in the city-wide votes for the London Assembly. The remainder of Respect, still headed by Galloway, and with the support of various smaller left groups, lost its only parliamentary seat in 2010. In 2012, the party briefly revived, with Galloway repeating his earlier triumph—this time in a by-election in Bradford West. Nonetheless, this did not mark a rebirth for the organisation. Labour took back the seat in 2015, by which time, Galloway had fallen out with five Respect councillors who had won seats in the wake of his parliamentary victory, and much of his support nationally had fallen away.70

The failure of the electoral turn provoked a series of crises in the SWP. This led to a searching process of exploring the party’s practice of democratic centralism, a reorientation of strategy to increase emphasis on party-building and changes to the leadership, triggering the exit of figures such as Rees and German and their ­supporters from the SWP. Though it is hard to argue the party was ultimately stronger for its electoral interventions, we cannot know what would have happened had the SWP failed to seek to exploit the electoral space to the left of Labour. What is clear is that the problems the SWP faced were not simply a result of ­tactical errors and unfortunate mishaps; nor were they reducible to the character of Galloway. They reflected the pressure of reformism in the context of a low level of struggle, refracted through Respect’s specific organisational structures and electoral base.

“Strategically non-delimited” formations

For revolutionaries seeking to construct their own electoral vehicles in the early 2000s, a major rival to the SWP’s conception of a “united front of a special type” was that of “strategically non-delimited” formations.71 By this is meant ­organisations in which revolutionaries participate in the leadership while dissolving their own party entirely or turning it into a “platform” within the wider organisation, thus consciously blurring the line between reform and revolution. Three examples of this broad type will be considered here, each with their own distinctive features: the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and People before Profit in Ireland.72

Like the Socialist Alliance, the SSP owed its origins to members of the Militant Tendency. In the case of Scotland, once expelled from Labour, supporters of this tendency, operating as Scottish Militant Labour, helped form the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996. This organisation contested both local and parliamentary ­elections over the next two years. Its most well-known figure, Tommy Sheridan, had come to prominence after being imprisoned during the anti-Poll Tax campaign in 1991 and, by 1993, he was one of six members of Scottish Militant Labour to hold council seats. In the run-up to the first elections to the newly formed Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Socialist Alliance converted itself into the SSP. The party went on to achieve real successes. Sheridan became a Member of the Scottish Parliament, winning election as part of the Glasgow regional list in 1999—and, in the subsequent elections in 2003, the SSP won five additional seats. SWP members in Scotland joined the SSP as the Socialist Worker Platform on 1 May 2001.

The success of the SSP, along with its growing emphasis on support for Scottish independence, saw rising tensions between the successors to Militant north and south of the border. Eventually, a majority of Scottish Militant Labour members broke away to create the International Socialist Movement (ISM), which would dominate the SSP for much of its early history.73 The ISM agreed with its former counterpart in England that Labour was now simply another bourgeois party, creating a large field of operation for new left-wing parties. The conception of the SSP as a response to this was set out by a leading member of the ISM, Murray Smith, in a critique of the SWP’s united front approach:

The SWP seems to counterpose revolutionary parties…to the new parties that are developing. This is a false dichotomy. The new regroupments and parties appearing…are not chemically pure revolutionary parties, but they are capable of evolving… We have to approach the building of new parties with a willingness to work with diverse forces and the patience to let clarification come through debate on common experience… The mass revolutionary parties of the future will…be open, pluralist and non-hierarchical… The starting point is the qualitative change in traditional workers’ parties, which opens up possibilities for new workers’ parties based on socialist, class struggle politics… The changes in the working class’s relationship to Labour explain why the SSP is a party that corresponds to the challenges of the present period.74

Insomuch as the SSP leadership acknowledged the need to work with wider, reformist forces, this would be based on a relationship between the SSP—already a coalition of reformists and revolutionaries—and those wider forces.75 The resulting lack of clarity in wider campaigns and the limitations it might place on participation by wider reformist forces was, as noted above, one of the problems that the SWP had sought to avoid through its “united front of a special type” formulation.

Although the SSP tolerated permanent factions, known as “platforms”, Smith explicitly advised the SWP not to preserve its organisational independence:

To the extent that the SWP approaches the SSP and the Socialist Alliance in the spirit of being the revolutionary component of the united front or the revolutionary faction within a centrist party, then it will have difficulty functioning in a constructive way. If it understands the specific character of the SSP then it will be much more likely to do as the ISM does: to build the party while developing the influence of Marxism within it, but not to act as a party within the party. Moreover, it will be more likely to help the Socialist Alliance develop towards a party.76

Inherent here was the notion of a broad party encompassing revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries in which Marxists should not enter with the aim of “building a revolutionary faction…but of taking forward the whole party and solving together…the problems that arise, as they arise”.77 Yet, given that this vision of the party was also “pluralist”, involving the “organised expression…of different political platforms”, there appeared to be an implicit assumption that the key dividing lines would not be between revolutionaries or reformists.78 Although this can be true on specific tactical questions, it is quite likely, over time, that such organisations will begin to suffer internal differentiation on precisely this basis. That is particularly the case if permanent platforms exist internally and especially in the face of any resurgence of reformism beyond the party.

In the event, this proposition was not put to the test during the SSP’s heyday. Instead, in November 2004, Sheridan was forced to resign as SSP convenor after the party’s national executive found out he was planning to sue a tabloid newspaper for libel due to allegations about his private life. Several members of the SSP ­leadership gave testimony against Sheridan during the subsequent court case. The result was a split, with Sheridan and his supporters, including the SWP, forming the new Solidarity organisation. Both sides were damaged in the split, with neither Solidarity nor the SSP winning any seats in the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The nature of the allegations against Sheridan revolved around claims by the News of the World that he attended a swingers’ club and committed adultery, but it is credible to argue that there were deeper political concerns behind the animosity towards Sheridan among sections of the SSP leadership. An earlier intervention by Alex Callinicos in the debate with the ISM had challenged the notion that formations such as the SSP were operating in a terrain made up of an array of barely distinguishable pro-capitalist parties. He pointed to the exaggeration of the possibilities this could cause:

An underestimation of reformism can…lead to the attempt to fill the entire space that it has supposedly left. The SSP leadership appear to believe that the death of social democracy means that pressing “bread and butter” economic demands automatically has a radicalising dynamic. This can lead to a sort of parochial economism manifested, for example, by a tendency of some members of the leadership to counterpose pursuing electoral agitation around the economic demands the party has prioritised…to building the anti-war movement.79

In the wake of the split, Mike Gonzalez echoed this earlier criticism, ­arguing that the core of the SSP leadership was reluctant to engage in broader ­movements outside the control of the organisation. He noted the resistance to seeking to replicate the best examples from the Stop the War Coalition south of the border, particularly when it came to involving Muslim organisations. When a major ­anti-capitalist protest occurred during the 2005 G8 summit at the Gleneagles Hotel in rural Scotland, it was written off as a mobilisation of “middle-class ­liberals”. Although Sheridan did not openly break with the ISM on these issues, he was the ISM leader most associated with engagement with broader movements.80

We can only speculate on the potential for the SSP to continue to grow had it not suffered such a damaging split. In one sense the Scottish terrain was more favourable for the radical left; Labourism has suffered an especially sharp decline there. Even under Corbyn, Labour failed to excite much enthusiasm on the Scottish left. Once the SSP was rendered impotent by its crisis, the major political beneficiary of Labour’s decline would be the Scottish National Party (SNP). Although not a traditional reformist organisation, under Alex Salmond and later Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP felt forced to compete with Labour by presenting at least mildly ­social-democratic measures to the left of those pursued by New Labour. Again, this reflects the persistence of reformist consciousness and how it can re-emerge in new organisational forms, squeezing the space for the revolutionary left.81

Alongside and associated with the rise of the SNP was the development of a mass campaign for independence around the time of the Scottish referendum in September 2014. This too became an expression of mass reformist sentiment to which various groups sought to give organised expression, often subordinating themselves to more mainstream pro-independence forces. Solidarity would drift rightwards, liquidating itself into the Alba Party, which was formed by Salmond after his break with the SNP. The SSP would also, for a time, be largely subsumed into the wider independence movement. It made a brief, unsuccessful attempt to regroup with other pro-independence left forces by joining a formation that emerged in the wake of the referendum, which was known as “RISE—Scotland’s Left Alliance”.82 It would eventually leave RISE but, by 2021, was not in a position to contest that year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections.

The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA; Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) in France offers another tale of exuberance followed by decline. It was formed in 2009 by the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR; Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), the most important section of the Fourth International. The LCR had enjoyed considerable success through the presidential campaigns of OIivier Besancenot. In 2002, he won 1.2 million votes in the first round of voting (4.3 percent) and, in 2007, 1.5 million (4.1 percent). Altogether, the French far left won over 10 percent of the first round vote in 2002. The NPA attracted 9,200 members at the time of its launch, almost three times the size of the LCR. Yet, today it has fewer than 2,000 and has undergone a recent split as it attempted to overcome deep internal factionalism. What can explain its catastrophic decline?

Undoubtedly, there were political problems, such as the ­equivocation of some NPA leaders on the issue of defending Muslims and the right to wear the hijab, a flashpoint in French politics. Compared to the routine Islamophobia of much of France’s left, the NPA’s decision to stand Ilham Moussaïd, a 21 year old hijab-wearing candidate, in elections in 2010, with strong support from figures such as Besancenot, was a positive sign. Yet, not only was Moussaïd subjected to vitriol from the broader left, but her candidature also triggered a debate in the NPA, ending in Moussaïd quitting the party with some of her supporters.83 There were also issues with the organisation’s structure. Like the LCR, the NPA ­institutionalised factionalism by allowing permanent internal platforms. This kind of structure, though superficially more open and pluralistic, can inhibit discussion across an ­organisation, with each ­platform deciding its position in advance and then fighting it out.

However, the central problem for the NPA was the resurgence of left reformism, expressed in particular through the various formations led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. To understand how these pressures worked themselves out we must understand the NPA’s strategic approach. The basis on which the NPA formed was that of an “anti-capitalist party”, not a classical Marxist “revolutionary party”. In 2003, a group of prominent LCR figures had engaged in the ongoing polemic between the ISM’s Smith and various leading figures in the SWP, giving their distinctive view of the possibilities for left regroupment. Their approach was more nuanced than that of the ISM, but they gave ­qualified support to Smith’s formulation on the ­transformation of social democracy, adding that Communist forces such as the French Communist Party (PCF; Parti Communiste Français) were also suffering their “death agony”. They set out their own version of Smith’s “strategically ­non-delimited” formation, termed a “party with incomplete strategic delimitations”.84

The idea of dubbing the new party anti-capitalist when it was launched was, for the LCR, justified in emphasising the possibility of a rupture with capitalism while avoiding the terms “revolutionary” or “socialist” in an effort to draw in supporters from a broader milieu critical of the capitalist system.85 Importantly, the name and orientation of the party was also designed to foreclose the possibility of a softer “anti-neoliberal” formation that might be tempted to participate in government with centre-left forces.86 SWP authors suggested that it might be unwise to assume that this possibility could be blocked by merely programmatic means; were the NPA to attain high levels of electoral support in a non-revolutionary period, it is likely that pressure would grow for it to participate in such a coalition, regardless of its name and its programme. In practice, the issue came to a head not through the NPA accommodating to reformism so much as the emergence of a left-reformist formation capable of outdoing the NPA on the electoral terrain.

In an early discussion about the NPA in International Socialism, one of the party’s leaders, François Sabado, set out an argument that foreshadowed this development:

When Mélenchon, one of the organisers of the socialist left, leaves the Socialist Party (France’s main social-democratic party) while maintaining the continuity of his reformist conceptions…and declaring that he wants to build a “French Die Linke”, what should the attitude of revolutionaries be? Should we support him and join with his proposals and projects for alliances with the French Communist Party, which maintains the perspective of governing tomorrow with the PS? Or should we take into account his break with the Socialist Party and have a positive approach to unity of action with his current but also not confuse the building of an anti-capitalist left with the building of a left-reformist party?… The building of a French Die Linke, in relation to the history of the revolutionary movement and to what has been accumulated by the NPA, would constitute a retreat from building an anti-capitalist alternative. When a whole sector influenced by the anti-capitalist left has distanced itself from the leaderships of the traditional left, to constitute a new left-reformist force would represent a step backward for the workers’ movement.87

However, it turned out that many drawn to the NPA were less convinced of its programmatic commitment to a rupture with capitalism. Indeed, the dissolution of the LCR as a distinctive type of revolutionary organisation deprived many young activists drawn into the NPA, and those radicalised by later struggles, of precisely the type of education and training required to develop such an understanding. This was reinforced by the NPA viewing itself not as an interventionist revolutionary formation, capable of leading struggles, but primarily as an electoral vehicle. The problems here preceded the NPA and go back to the LCR:

The LCR was highly interventionist after its formation…in 1968; it was actually banned for its role in leading an attack on a fascist rally in 1973. Yet, in response to the crisis of the revolutionary left in the late 1970s, the LCR moved towards a much more passive stance towards struggles. This stance—an overreaction to the ­substitutionist errors into which it had sometimes fallen in the late 1960s and early 1970s—was ­justified by the idea that political organisations should respect the “autonomy of the social movements”, as if unions and other campaigning bodies are somehow free of the clash of ideologies and political tendencies. Individual activists from the LCR, and later the NPA, might play important roles in strikes, unions and anti-globalisation coalitions…but the political organisation would only very rarely bring these activists together to hammer out a line on a particular issue, let alone to bring their collective weight behind an intervention. This had two negative consequences. First, it limited the LCR’s and NPA’s ability to shape different struggles and movements. Second, it meant that, in practice, elections…became the focus of the organisation’s existence.88

This led to a separation between politics and workers’ struggle, in which, as one participant in the group from an International Socialist Tendency background put it, the NPA “worked primarily as an electoral outlet”.89 In this context, Mélenchon’s development of the Left Front (FdG; Front de Gauche)—bringing together his own Parti de Gauche (Left Party) with the PCF—posed a serious challenge. In the first elections it contested, for the European Parliament in summer 2009, the FdG took 6.5 percent of the vote, compared to 4.9 for the NPA. By the time of the next presidential election in spring 2012, the NPA’s candidate, Philippe Poutou, could achieve a vote of just 1.2 percent, compared to 11.1 percent for Mélenchon. The NPA’s failure to engage seriously with the FdG, besides an abstract call for a common anti-capitalist candidate, allowed the FdG to pose as the force for unity on the left, outmanoeuvring the NPA.90 The NPA’s membership declined rapidly, and there were deepening factional tensions, including with ultra-left and sectarian factions that benefited from the paralysis. However, alongside this a significant platform developed that was sympathetic to the concept of an “anti-neoliberal” presidential candidate. This grouping later broke with the NPA, joining the FdG, reuniting with an earlier break from the LCR that also supported Mélenchon’s approach.

In 2016, Mélenchon would launch a new organisation, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). By now, the Socialist Party was in freefall as a result of the widespread disappointment in François Hollande’s presidency from 2012 onwards. In the 2017 presidential election, won by Emmanuel Macron, Mélenchon captured 19.6 percent of the vote in the first round, coming fourth, with the Socialist Party ­candidate trailing on just 6.3 percent. The NPA’s Poutou received just 1 percent. By the spring 2022 presidential elections, Mélenchon’s vote had risen to 22 percent, putting him in third place and establishing La France Insoumise as the major left opposition group in the National Assembly. Reflecting this breakthrough by left-reformism, the Socialist Party, Greens and PCF each felt obliged to join the New Ecological and Social People’s Union coalition constructed and led by Mélenchon—and aimed at ­creating precisely the type of broad left government feared by the NPA.91 Meanwhile, the NPA garnered just 0.8 percent of the vote. An explicitly left-reformist formation had completely displaced the “party with incomplete strategic delimitations”. The NPA itself suffered a significant split at its December 2022 congress, with the departure of the more sectarian currents that had grown in relative weight during its decline. At the same time, the remainder of the NPA argued that, in order to grow, it needed to find a way to connect with Mélenchon’s supporters via a united front approach:

Our analysis of the decline of class consciousness leads us to consider that a resolute united front policy is absolutely necessary. Thus, it is necessary to be able to intervene in the debates which currently shake La France Insoumise… This crisis is largely linked to the relationship of the organisation to the institutions. To intervene with its activists, we need to be seen as partners, not as adversaries.92

It remains to be seen whether such an approach can halt the decline of the NPA.

The fate of Irish revolutionaries has been, thus far, a happier experience. Activists from the Irish Socialist Workers Party, now the Socialist Workers Network (SWN), developed a form of organisation that in some way has come to resemble the “strategically non-delimited” formations discussed here. People before Profit (PbP) in which the SWN participates had, at the time of writing, four TDs (members of parliament) in the Irish Dáil, one member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and 11 councillors across the North and South of Ireland.

The initial foray by the Irish Socialist Workers Party into local elections in the mid-2000s came in the wake of a sizeable movement against new taxes on refuse collection (the “bin tax”), alongside the anti-war movement and other campaigns. Bríd Smith and Richard Boyd Barrett, both well-known socialist activists, stood for the party in 2004 and, the following year, helped launch the People before Profit Alliance. Their localised election campaigns were relatively successful, with both candidates coming close to winning.93 The space for such a left alternative would open considerably wider after the economic crisis of 2008-9. Fianna Fáil, the dominant party in the South of Ireland, saw a sharp decline in support. In local elections in 2009, about 20 far-left councillors won seats. Then, in 2011, five TDs were elected. Two were from PbP, two from the Socialist Party, and one from the Workers and Unemployed Action group.94 The new TDs had stood on a joint United Left Alliance ticket, which brought together their respective organisations. PbP sought to turn the United Left Alliance into a party in order to build on this success, but the other components resisted this and soon departed the formation.95

As Socialist Workers Party members threw themselves into building PbP, they were aided by the development of a series of powerful movements, most notably the resistance to efforts to impose water charges, in which several PbP members played a prominent role. By 2014, both PbP and the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), created by the Socialist Party and later renamed Solidarity, had established a national profile. The AAA would win two by-elections that year. PbP and the AAA would also benefit from the failures of more mainstream left parties. The Irish Labour Party initially increased its support in the wake of the economic crisis. Yet, as well as lacking a significant parliamentary left, Labour had a long-standing habit of entering coalitions with the other major pro-capitalist party, Fine Gael. Having done this again in 2011, it was unable to capitalise on popular discontent.96 So, in the 2016 elections, voters punished Labour for its participation in the coalition, while an alliance between the AAA and PbP won six TDs, three for each organisation.

By now, the extent of mobilisation over economic demands was declining, but the left could still engage in major political campaigns over issues such as the repeal of anti-abortion laws and struggles over climate change. However, between 2016 and the general election of 2020, there was a reconfiguration of the forces of the ­reformist left. The big winner in 2020 was Sinn Féin, which leant slightly to the left in the election campaign. Its first-preference votes surged to 24.5 percent, higher than any other party and an increase of 10 percent on the previous election. It would now play the role of the main opposition to a coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. As Kieran Allen, a leading member of the SWN, put it:

Sinn Féin has become the main vehicle through which Irish workers’ reformist aspirations are being expressed. Reformism usually comes from a social-democratic tradition, but this is not always the case…in the absence of a strong social-democratic tradition, they will find their political expression elsewhere.97

By contrast, Labour and another moderate reformist party, the Social Democrats, won only just over 7 percent between them. The joint PbP-Solidarity ticket was squeezed by the rise of Sinn Féin, but the three PbP TDs retained their seats. They were later joined by another TD, Paul Murphy, whose organisation, RISE, had broken from the Socialist Party in 2019 and now joined PbP. This cemented PbP’s position as the major party to the left of Sinn Féin in the South.98

What kind of organisation is PbP? The SWN views it as a “transitional ­organisation”. This is contrasted with a united front: “PbP is clearly a political party that not only consistently contests elections but also has a comprehensive programme of policies.” The SWN also rejects the idea that PbP is a reformist party, or even a “left-reformist party such as Syriza, Podemos and Die Linke”. Rather, echoing the formulations used to describe the NPA, it is conceived of as “thoroughly anti-capitalist, opposed to coalition with bourgeois parties and only prepared to enter a government that is actually prepared to take on the system”. It is “not yet” a fully-fledged revolutionary party and is open to non-revolutionaries. However, “The leadership of PbP is in the hands of avowed revolutionaries… The culture and atmosphere of its meetings…is clearly socialist and influenced by Marxism and revolutionary ideas.” This conception of the party is a result of a process of development. The party began as an anti-neoliberal coalition, in which revolutionaries would initially articulate a left-reformist discourse but, in the absence of any “organised reformist pole”, it gradually morphed into a more overtly socialist organisation, drawing on the revolutionary tradition.99

Given the parallels with other models discussed here, it is worth highlighting potential challenges for this approach. The first is the changing configuration of reformism and left reformism. Though those running PbP do not regard it as a reformist organisation, it is likely that many of those who vote for it do so in the hope that it might eventually attain elected office and use this to deliver reforms. That is the case even if they also recognise the important role that its members play in extra-parliamentary activity. This creates the possibility of voters shifting from PbP towards other left-wing alternatives if the latter are seen as constituting a more viable alternative capable of delivering reform. Neither the Labour Party nor the Social Democrats in the South have been able to fulfil this role in recent years but, as Allen notes, Sinn Féin may offer a more credible effort. Fortunately, so far, because many Sinn Féin voters gave PbP their second preferences, this has not pushed the PbP out of parliament.

A second possibility is that an organised reformist current could conceivably develop over time if there is an influx of new members drawn to PbP because of its electoral success. Currently, the SWN is hegemonic within the organisation’s leadership. However, the decision of RISE to join PbP as a network, with its own magazine and podcast, suggests the potential for sharper internal discussions in the future.100 There are also other strategic issues likely to be posed by Sinn Féin’s growth. In particular, navigating debates about the potential for a “left government” will be crucial.101 None of this diminishes the successes achieved by PbP and the élan with which those involved have seized opportunities on the electoral terrain and used the platform they have obtained. Still, it is important to contextualise this experience alongside some of the less inspiring instances of engagement in electoral work around Europe to fully appreciate the types of pressure that may develop.

Some lessons

What do we learn from this survey of electoral interventions by the revolutionary left in Europe?

The electoral terrain has proved far less favourable than many anticipated in the early 2000s and the years immediately after the 2008-9 crisis. The problems were not simply due to unfortunate accidents and isolated mistakes by ­revolutionaries, though certainly there were plenty of those. They resulted from a deeper ­political cause—in non-revolutionary times, reformism has distinct advantages on the electoral terrain. There can still be moments when radical formations involving ­revolutionaries break through and challenge or even eclipse traditional forms of social democracy. Yet, when the moment passes, reformism tends to cohere in new or reconfigured forms, squeezing the space open to revolutionaries. No organisational form completely immunises these electoral initiatives from the pressure of reformism, whatever their specific advantages or disadvantages.

In recognising this, a major danger is a retreat into sterile sectarianism and revolutionary dogmatism. It is true that, in conditions of still relatively episodic working-class self-activity, sectarian groups can prosper and grow, particularly if larger far-left groups fall into crisis. This has been one consequence of the sharp decline of the NPA in France, and we are seeing similar developments elsewhere in Europe. Yet, such groups are rarely able to translate incremental growth in times of relative working-class quiescence into success in the context of mass struggle, precisely because of the one-sided way their membership is trained and developed.

Moreover, the instinct to seize political opportunities and engage in ­discussions about “left regroupment”, and electoral initiatives more generally, is a good one. It clearly remains advantageous for revolutionary socialists to win positions in bourgeois parliaments, as demonstrated in the use of the Dáil and the Northern Ireland Assembly made by revolutionaries. Yet, there are a range of approaches to this. This can include anti-capitalist coalitions stressing intervention in struggle alongside electoral work, such as Antarsya in Greece. 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; again, though, simply transplanting the FIT-U model to Britain is unlikely to produce instant success. The context—including the specific configuration of reformist forces, the strength of the revolutionary left and the state of class struggle—matter.

In exploring these possibilities, we must avoid a sort of revolutionary FOMO (“fear of missing out”) whenever an opportunity arises to create or join a broader electoral formation. As we have seen, there was pressure on the Greek far left to participate in Syriza as it grew and began to achieve electoral breakthroughs. With the benefit of hindsight, it was evidently correct for the revolutionaries of SEK to resist this pressure, and we can learn something from this experience too.

In other words, the benefit of our accumulated experiences over three decades is not to avoid risk-taking but to allow us to wager more intelligently. We are in a different position to revolutionaries in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when the ­reference points tended to be the debates that followed the Russian Revolution and the upheavals of the inter-war period. Certainly, we can learn from those debates that forging a mass revolutionary party is unlikely to be a result of a gradual, incremental growth of organisations such as the SWP, but rather will arise from splits and fusions involving larger reformist and centrist organisations. However, for such a process to work to the advantage of revolutionaries, it is likely that a far higher and more sustained level of workers’ struggles is required. This would wrench the terrain away from the narrow vision of the reformists and towards the collective self-activity of workers. That, sadly, has not been the case in Europe in recent decades; until that changes, we must also be attentive to how these various experiments have played out in our existing conditions.

Prospects for revolutionaries in Britain

Here we face a Tory government in an apparent state of advanced decrepitude but determined to drive through an assault on working-class living standards, while also seeking to divert popular anger towards refugees crossing the English Channel in small boats. The official opposition is a Starmer-led Labour Party mounting an assault on its own left wing and threatening to go beyond Blair and Brown in “reforming” the public services. Meanwhile, we are experiencing what I have referred to in this journal as a “halting recovery” of working-class struggle. This involves the most sustained strike action since the late 1980s—but this is presided over by a trade union bureaucracy, a particular organised expression of reformism, that has shown its capacity to constrain strikes within strict limits.102

In this context, we should welcome any decision by figures such as Corbyn and Abbott to stand as left-of-Labour candidates in the general election expected next year. A break with Labour would show the possibility of working-class political radicalisation extending beyond the framework of the dominant reformist party. The snub to Starmer, who has ordered his MPs to stay away from picket lines, could give greater confidence to workers to fight. This is so even if Corbynism remains a left-wing variant of Labourism, and even if Corbyn may aspire, as Livingstone once did, to return to Labour on the back of electoral success.

Our approach here should be to offer support to and campaign for credible left candidates as an independent detachment of revolutionary socialists, not with the main goal of forming a common organisation with reformists directed primarily towards electoral work. For now, this is likely to be straightforward. There were, in the May local elections, a tiny number of impressive results for the left, largely involving former Labour councillors, such as those who stood as Liverpool Community Independents and won three seats.103 The dominant conception of politics here is, again, Corbynism as a left-wing variant of Labourism. Beyond these examples, candidates of the radical left mostly received poor or unremarkable results, with the Green Party the main beneficiary of the anti-Starmer and anti-Tory protest vote. Things may, of course, look different a couple of years into a future Starmer administration, but for now there is little basis for a major left break from Labour. In most elections, where there is no credible left candidate, we should continue to call for a critical vote for Labour. As noted above, this is not due to any illusions in Labourism but as a basic act of anti-Tory solidarity, allowing us more effectively to win workers to joint activity in the wider struggles emerging in Britain.

Where we do engage with left-of-Labour election campaigns, we should also understand the quite intense demands of electoral work and avoid this becoming a substitute for other important forms of activity, particularly developing embryonic rank and file initiatives in the strike movement and combatting the threat of racism and the far right. Again, though the period of Corbyn’s ascendancy within Labour was welcome in repopularising notions of socialism, the absorption of much of the left into Labour did relatively little to advance broader social movements beyond the electoral sphere.104 Paradoxically, a fixation on elections and parliamentary manoeuvres can undermine the very struggles that often help give rise to the electoral breakthroughs of the radical left.

Finally, we should understand that electoral work, though important, is subordinated to a wider goal: deepening the implantation of revolutionary organisation within the working class. Our collective experiences over recent decades furnish vital lessons; studying these can ensure that we do better in striving for that goal in the future.

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 This article has benefited from discussions with members of the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. Any errors remain entirely my own.

2 See the article in this issue of International Socialism for a detailed discussion of the Scottish dimension.

3 Prasad, 2023.

4 There are important developments outside Europe beyond the scope of the current article.

5 Lenin, 1993, pp65 and 68-69.

6 For a classic statement of this position, see Barker, 1987.

7 If the British working class attains a degree of radicalism such that it is prepared to return 325 revolutionary socialist MPs to the House of Commons, it would be hoped that the situation would already be a revolutionary one and that the programme on which they were elected would include workers’ insurrection.

8 Sándor John, 2009, pp92-93.

9 For an account of the attempts to uphold this principle in pre-revolutionary Russia, see Badayev, 1987.

10 The figures here come from a research note shared by John Rudge. Rudge also points out that, when the early International Socialists and their predecessor, the Socialist Review Group, were a small current within the Labour Party, engaged in what Trotsky called the “primitive accumulation of cadre”, various members stood as Labour candidates in elections. Some gained quite good votes, often in the region of 30 percent. They were able to do so precisely because they were standing as Labour candidates. Actually, winning and holding seats in this manner would have involved accommodations with mainstream Labourism. Indeed, in a now largely forgotten episode, a long-standing IS member, Syd Bidwell, won a seat for Labour in Southall in the 1966 general election. He was expelled from the IS a few weeks before the election for pandering to racism in his campaign.

11 Again, this approach is rooted in the advice Lenin gave to the fledgling Communist movement in Britain in the early 1920s­—see Lenin, 1993, chapter 9.

12 It is also worth recalling that the basis for the triumph of neoliberalism in Britain was laid by the 1974-9 Labour government, which, prior to Margaret Thatcher’s election, ditched its adherence to Keynesianism and implemented a version of monetarism. See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp320-332.

13 This was sometimes termed the anti-capitalist or alter-globalisation (“altermondialiste” in French) movement.

14 Hereafter, I refer to the United Secretariat simply as the Fourth International.

15 Unlike the Committee for a Workers’ International, the SWP retains the view that Labour is a “capitalist workers’ party”, defending the interests of capitalism but with mass support from workers and organic links to the working class via unions. This formulation, derived from Lenin’s writings, has allowed us to avoid illusions in Labourism during its oscillations to the left and to avoid sectarianism during its shifts to the right. See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp1-2.

16 See, for instance, Callinicos, 2012a.

17 Gramsci, 1998, p333.

18 Trotsky, 1997, p18.

19 Much of the early history is detailed in Hallas, 1982. Entryism often involved joining what Trotskyists called “centrist organisations”—reformist organisations that, in the inter-war period, were pushed by events to adopt at least a verbal commitment to revolution, while vacillating between reform and revolution in practice. This was, in some cases, proposed by Trotsky as a tactic to create larger revolutionary currents. There was some numerical growth of the tiny British Trotskyist left via its entry into the centrist Independent Labour Party (ILP) in this period, but this was undermined by revolutionaries adapting to the ILP and resisting attempts to withdraw once it was clear that winning the ILP to revolution was not a credible ambition. On the very limited successes and considerable failures of this tactic elsewhere, see Cliff, 1993, pp224-234.

20 As it was driven out of the Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s, the Militant Tendency split into two groupings. One is Socialist Appeal, which, from its foundation in 1992, sought to remain in Labour until it was finally expelled under Starmer in 2021. It has recently achieved some success on campuses via its “Marxist societies”, which present a relatively dogmatic Marxism. The other is the Socialist Party, which turned to denunciation of Labour as an out and out capitalist party. It now controls the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. A third group, Socialist Alternative, recently split from the Socialist Party over its approach to anti-oppression politics.

21 Cited in McGregor, 1986, p69.

22 Cited in McGregor, 1986, p61.

23 This is just one example of the persistent relevance, beyond the lifespan of the Soviet Union, of Cliff’s theory of bureaucratic state capitalism, which challenged the idea that even full nationalisation of an economy could, without workers’ achieving their self-emancipation through revolution, lead to a socialist society. See Cliff, 1996.

24 For reasons of space, numerous other important examples, such as that of the Party of Communist Refoundation (“Rifondazione Comunista”) in Italy, the Portuguese Left Bloc and the Norwegian Red Party, are not discussed here.

25 See Callinicos, 2012a, pp12-14.

26 The long-standing presence of candidates from various parties descended from the Communist tradition, operating within a far less punishing electoral system for minority parties than in Britain, helped Syriza to achieve some electoral success from the outset. This created a platform for its later growth.

27 See Garganas, 2015.

28 See, for instance, Davanellos, 2014.

29 Internationalist Workers’ Left, 2015.

30 Kouvelakis, 2015.

31 Kouvelakis would compare Tsípras’s surrender to the Social Democratic Party voting for war credits in the German Reichstag at the outbreak of the First World War—see Garganas, 2015, p20. When Lenin read about that vote in the Social Democrats’ newspaper, he assumed it must be a forgery by the German general staff. The capitulation of Syriza was, alas, far more predictable.

32 Cited in Garganas, 2012, p199.

33 Callinicos, 2012a, p19.

34 Callinicos, 2012a, p21.

35 See Sierra, 2017 and 2022.

36 Cited in Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015, p19.

37 Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015, pp25-27.

38 Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015, p28.

39 Cited in Bravo, 2016.

40 Sierra, 2017, p59.

41 Cited in Sierra, 2022, p153.

44 Bornost, 2007.

46 Wagenknecht’s book, Die Selbstgerechten (“The Self-Righteous”), is a polemic against what she calls the “lifestyle left” and “identity politics”.

47 Connolly, 2018.

48 Buchholz, Mosler and Mosler, 2006. This was not a throwaway remark; a very similar formulation appears in Nachtwey, 2009, pp33-34.

49 For the use of the term “centrist” in the context, see footnote 19, above.

50 Given this later development, it is easy to see why Clara Zetkin, one of the most able German revolutionaries of the period, saw Luxemburg’s break with the USPD as coming too early—Birchall, 2016, p189.

51 Harman, 1982, pp36, 55, 63, 65-95 and 191-218; Broué, 2004, pp189-225.

52 For an indication of this approach, see the praise heaped on Jane McAlevey’s organising strategy in Stierl, Billor and Dormann, 2019. By contrast, for a critique of this approach, see Brook, 2022.

53 The formulation was developed by John Rees while he was a member of the SWP and responsible for leading its electoral work. See, for instance, Rees, 2002, p63.

54 Trotsky, 1974, p93.

55 Trotsky, 1974, pp93-94.

56 Trotsky, 1974, p94,

57 Trotsky, 1974, p96.

58 Trotsky, 1975.

59 Rees, 2002, p64.

60 The organisation’s full name was Respect—The Unity Coalition.

61 Although Livingstone’s victory in the first election for the newly created position of mayor of London was a humiliation for Blair, the Labour leader invited him to rejoin the party and stand as its candidate for Labour when his first term ended in 2004. Livingstone, a pragmatist strongly committed to Labourism, accepted, and he won re-election with a slightly reduced vote. On Livingstone’s trajectory, see Kimber, 2007.

62 The Socialist Party’s Ian Page also won 4.2 percent in the Greenwich and Lewisham constituency.

63 SWP members took 4.6 percent in the Hackney South and Shoreditch constituency and 3.7 percent in Tottenham.

64 The most prominent was Liz Davies, a former Labour councillor and national executive member, who became the Socialist Alliance’s chair in 2001. She resigned nine months later, citing the domination of the SWP and the SWP’s shift in orientation towards building the Stop the War Coalition after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

65 Galloway’s left credentials were in many ways weaker than other figures such as Tony Benn, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn. He was not a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs and, in the aftermath of the 1990 Poll Tax riot that helped spell the end of Margaret Thatcher, he claimed, “these lunatics, anarchists and other extremists, principally from the Socialist Workers Party, were out for a rumble the whole time”. Cited in Harman, 2008, p32.

66 Respect initially tried to form an electoral pact with the Greens, but its efforts were rebuffed.

67 About a third of the population identify as Muslim in these areas. In other areas, such as North East London constituency, with far fewer Muslim voters, Respect bettered the Socialist Alliance’s by only a few percentage points.

69 See Harman, 2008, pp33-37.

70 Yaqoob was among those who broke with Galloway in 2012 when he said that the rape allegation against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was merely a case of “bad sexual etiquette”. The Fourth International had left two years earlier when Galloway announced that he planned to stand in Scotland without consulting the Scottish Socialist Party, which it supported.

71 The phrase itself appears in Smith, 2002a.

72 In some ways the latest incarnation of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in which the SWP was briefly a participant, fits this description. Initially, it was a coalition encompassing the Socialist Party, the SWP and the leadership of the RMT rail workers’ union. It was formed in 2010, and the SWP left in 2017. It achieved limited success as an electoral formation but, once Corbyn became Labour leader, it was clear that standing on a left platform against Labour was not likely to yield credible results. The RMT formally departed in 2022, leaving TUSC as largely a Socialist Party front with a few other individual supporters. However, at times, the Socialist Party also compares TUSC with a united front—see Heemskerk, 2019.

73 The ISM dissolved itself in 2006.

74 Smith, 2002b, pp44-45. See also, on this point, Smith, 2003. Smith has had an interesting trajectory, moving to France and playing a role in the Revolutionary Communist League, whose formation of the New Anti-capitalist Party is discussed below. He then supported a breakaway from this party, joining the Front de Gauche (Left Front). He ended up as a leader of The Left, a party in Luxembourg. This trajectory involved coming to terms with left-reformism but still giving it an anti-capitalist gloss. In one noteworthy intervention a decade ago, this meant denying the likes of the French Communist Party and Syriza can be seen as reformist—see Smith, 2013.

75 See McKerrell, 2002, p55.

76 Smith, 2002b, p47.

77 Smith, 2003, p73.

78 Smith, 2003, p74.

79 Callinicos, 2003.

80 Gonzalez, 2006.

81 On these developments, see Davidson, 2008.

82 RISE was established in 2015 by members of the International Socialist Group (Scotland), a small split from the SWP.

83 Wolfreys, 2015, p38.

84 See Bensaïd, Crémieux, Duval and Sabado, 2003.

85 There was, however, a close vote at the founding conference over the name, with delegates coming close to instead selecting “Revolutionary Anti-capitalist Party”.

86 See Callinicos, 2008, pp97-101.

87 Sabado, 2009, pp145-146.

88 Callinicos, 2012b, p23.

89 Godard, 2013, p207.

90 Callinicos, 2012a, p21; Wolfreys, 2012, pp39-47.

91 The NPA was also involved in talks to form the coalition but decided not to participate organisationally when the Socialist Party came on board.

93 Molyneux, 2022, pp27-28.

94 The Socialist Party was the Committee for a Workers’ International’s group in Ireland.

95 Molyneux, 2022, p29.

96 Labour was also linked to the bureaucracy of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), Ireland’s largest union, with SIPTU leaders having practiced “partnership” with bosses over more than two decades.

97 Allen, 2021a.

98 The North of Ireland has its own political dynamic, different to that in the South, but here, too, PbP, which supports a unified, socialist Ireland, has achieved impressive results. Gerry Carroll topped the poll in 2016 in Belfast West to gain a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the party holds several council seats. Its breakthrough again reflects both determined campaigning work on several issues over many years and the weakening of mainstream political forces. It also reflects the development of a clear and unique position on the national question, critical of the nature of the states of both the North and South, determined not to write off Protestant workers, and advocating a united Ireland secured via working-class struggle—see Molyneux, 2022, p34.

99 Molyneux, 2022, pp35-36.

101 On this, see, for instance, Allen, 2021b.

102 Choonara, 2023.

103 Socialist Worker, 2023.

104 See Thomas, 2017, Kimber, 2020, and Kimber, 2021, which chart the rise and fall of Corbynism.


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