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Providing a revolutionary alternative

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Issue 1751

Debates in socialist movement

Providing a revolutionary alternative

By Chris Bambery

THE SOCIALIST Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party’s election campaigns have put socialism back on the agenda bigtime. In contrast, the Labour left weekly Tribune complains, “This election has probably witnessed the lowest ever turnout of committed party members. “Everywhere there are tales of many of the most committed people having left the party or becoming inactive.”

Socialists have the best opening in 100 years to build a left wing alternative which has powerful support in the working class. In the time since the Labour Party was formed at the beginning of the 20th century, socialists have been pushed to the sidelines of working class politics. Although individual socialists and socialist organisations have at various times been able to make an impact, the politics of Labourism dominated political life in working class communities.


A pattern emerged in working class politics in the absence of a clear socialist alternative to Labour. When workers began to win economic battles they looked to their own trade union power to gain further concessions. But when strikes began to go down to defeat, workers looked to the Labour Party to achieve political change.

This dominance of Labourism was not inevitable. In 1893, when the Independent Labour Party was formed, socialists had a choice. They could join and try to shape the new party, keeping their socialist politics as distinctive as possible, or they could stand aside in sectarian isolation. Unfortunately sectarianism dominated the early British Marxists, and they withdrew from the ILP.

The dominant trend which developed within the new party was to drop any clear commitment to socialism and create a wider Labour Party in alliance with trade union leaders which was narrowly parliamentarian. So a strong left wing influenced by Marxist ideas never emerged in the early Labour Party. This was different to countries elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany and France.

Break to the left

For eight decades the possibility of creating mass socialist parties has been off the agenda. But today the decomposition of Labour’s traditional support is under way, and it raises the prospect of serious forces breaking to the left. The growing global movement against capitalism is fusing with discontent with Blair.

Both flow from a common source-the global ruling class’s championing of the free market agenda so beloved by New Labour. In this situation people breaking with Labour can keep moving left.

The Socialist Alliance has brought together increasing numbers of former Labour Party members and activists, as well as uniting existing groups of the far left. One of the greatest strengths of the Socialist Alliance is that it has brought together people from different political traditions and backgrounds. But debates about the way forward are also vital-as long as they are part of a united movement that fights and campaigns together.

Within the Socialist Alliance there are those who argue that revolutionary change is necessary, and others who in varying degrees argue that the system can be reformed. The Socialist Workers Party believes that we need revolutionary change and a mass revolutionary party.

Change from below

All real change has come from mass movements from below. The ruling class will use its control of the state to try and block such radical change. This is what happened in Chile in 1973 when the democratically elected left wing government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a brutal military coup. That government made the fatal mistake of trying to push through change within the confines of the existing system, and did not mobilise the full power of the working class.

At the moment many of the parties and groups of the new left which is emerging in Britain and internationally have not committed themselves to a particular model of organisation. This openness and fluidity is normal, and indeed desirable. But in periods of political awakening like ours it cannot not last forever. In any great struggle there is a conflict between the old and the new. The old feeds off the ideas we have had fed to us from birth, defended by the Labour Party and the trade union leaders-slavish adherence to the capitalist constitution and laws.

The new flows from the gut instincts of workers who want to fight and win. The outcome of this battle between old and new will decide the outcome of major struggles, and ultimately of revolution. The 20th century saw a series of revolutionary crises where tragically the old won over the new, and the working class paid a terrible price as the ruling class reimposed “order” through bloody repression. Fascism in Italy was one product, Nazism in Germany another.

Parties which refuse to choose between reform and revolution can become paralysed or divided in moments of crisis. One of the tasks of revolutionaries within the new movements is to make sure that the working class does not have to undergo that experience again.

Revolutionary party

A revolutionary party centres on two things. Firstly, the revolutionary party adheres to firm principles, which at times involve it being a small minority within the working class. Secondly, it tries to build a close relationship with the greatest possible number of workers by providing effective leadership in every struggle that arises.

After the 1917 Russian Revolution its main leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, looked to build mass communist parties clearly committed to revolution across Europe. Such mass parties could not-and cannot today-be built simply by recruiting individuals, important as that was and is. It would involve what Lenin described as a process of “splits and fusions” within the existing mass organisations of the working class, Labour-type parties and the trade unions.

Lenin and Trotsky’s aim was to create parties that would not simply make abstract propaganda about the need for socialism and contest elections. Rather, they would immerse themselves in the day to day struggles of workers in which they could argue for revolutionary strategy, tactics and ideas. In 1920 Lenin argued, “Propaganda and agitation alone are not enough for an entire class, the broad masses of the working people, those oppressed by capital, to take up such a stand. For that, the masses must have their own political experience.”

Mass movement

Many of those now supporting the Socialist Alliance and the SSP, or considering switching support, will not agree with the need for such a revolutionary party. Over time and in practice revolutionaries have to demonstrate that their strategies, tactics and ideas are necessary to arm the working class. There are no short cuts. Simply passing a resolution is not going to convince tens of thousands of workers of the need for revolution.

The Socialist Workers Party wants to be part of a mass movement in which we can win a mass hearing for revolution. The main danger facing the left today is sectarianism. New movements and a new left are emerging, globally and locally. Revolutionary socialists cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, but need to be at the centre of the debate.

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