The present political period is characterised by the development of mass resistance to neoliberal imperialism, represented most spectacularly by the great protests against the war in Iraq.
At a global level US imperialism is stymied by the quagmire in Iraq. Movements of mass resistance continue, most spectacularly in parts of Latin America.
In Europe the picture is much more uneven. Business, political, and media elites are united in support of neoliberal economic policies. This is reflected in the phenomenon of social liberalism – the surrender of parties like New Labour to the market.
Nevertheless the French student revolt in March and April last year indicates the potential for mass resistance to block and defeat neoliberal initiatives.
But mass movements aren’t static phenomena. They are products of history and develop historically, going through different stages and changing.
The biggest problem the movements since the Seattle protests of November 1999 have faced is that of politics. In their early phase they were dominated by what the French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd calls “the social illusion” – the belief that resistance movements should keep their distance from politics and political parties.
Underlying this stance was the fear that the struggle for state power would reproduce a version of Stalinism. Many activists embraced the slogan put forward by John Holloway in his book Change The World Without Taking Power.
This was always a nonsensical belief. Movements of global resistance to neoliberalism and imperialism unavoidably enter the political field and demand representation.
We can see this very clearly in Latin America. The most advanced struggles – Bolivia and Venezuela – have both posed the question of state power, but in different ways.
In Venezuela the mass movement developed to support Hugo Chavez’s reformist government. In Bolivia the mass movement brought Evo Morales to office and imposed on him the programme of taking the hydrocarbon industry back into the hands of state.
Of course, this leaves many questions unresolved. In both countries the state remains capitalist. Ultimately the movement will have to develop its own forms of popular power and replace this state or it will fail.
In Europe the problem of politics has posed itself at a less advanced level, that of the relationship between movements and parties. In some countries new left formations have emerged that articulate the demands of the movements politically – for example, Respect, the Left Bloc in Portugal, or the new Left Party in Germany.
In Italy, the country where in 2001-4 the movement reached its highest level, an existing party, Rifondazione Comunista, strongly identified itself with the movement.
But two kinds of problem have now emerged. The first concerns the politics of the new left parties.
This is most sharply expressed in Italy. There was always a gap between the ambiguously revolutionary rhetoric of Fausto Bertinotti, Rifondazione’s general secretary, and the party’s actual practice.
The gap has become glaring now that Rifondazione is participating in Romano Prodi’s centre left coalition government and has voted to send Italian troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon. The effect on what had been the biggest anti-war movement in Europe has been nothing short of disastrous.
The Italian experience, like those in Latin America, confirms that that the question of reform and revolution retains all its actuality. But this takes us to the second problem.
Sections of the far left have used the divide between reformists and revolutionaries to justify abstaining from building new left parties or even seeking to sabotage them.
The most extreme case is that of some groups in Germany that have tried to use the participation of one wing of the new Left Party in a social-liberal coalition in Berlin to try to kill the party off at birth.
France presents a more complex and tragic case, as Stathis Kouvelakis shows. But the result is that a divided radical left will leave the presidential elections in spring dominated by two right wing populist candidates.
Underlying both problems is the same false choice between a broad mass party that gets drawn back towards social liberalism or a narrow revolutionary organisation.
The approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) since Seattle has been based on refusing this pseudo-dilemma. Our aim is a mass revolutionary party.
But the only way to do this is by winning substantial numbers of working people previously loyal to Labour and its social democratic counterparts elsewhere.
In present circumstances, this can only be done by creating new political formations whose door is open to refugees from social democracy.
But because the issue of reform and revolution is a living one, we need revolutionary socialist organisations actively building these formations and fighting for a distinctively Marxist analysis and strategy within them.
So, we don’t say: either Respect or the SWP. We want both – a strong and growing SWP means a strong and growing Respect as well.