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Are the European left parties the way forward?

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The following articles are the first part of a series that will include other European Left Parties, specifically Syriza in Greece

Left Parties or Revolutionary parties?

Over the past two decades all the main parties of western European social democracy moved sharply rightwards. Despite their origins in the workers’ movement, this year sees their centenary as “the party that leans upon the workers but serves the bourgeoisie” (Leon Trotsky). They have loyally followed their master’s shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism.

They changed from advocating social reforms – modest enough after the immediate post-war period – to promoting the abolition of these social reforms.

Under a Tony Blair, a Gerhardt Schroeder or a Lionel Jospin, they have launched attacks on social welfare, public health and education systems, trade union rights and the privatisation of state-run industries. In many countries they oversaw the bailout of the billionaire bankers.

This has put major strains on the relationship between these parties and their working class members, at a time when other organisations like the official communist parties, historically to the left of social democracy, also went into decline.

Many organisations on Europe’s far left – the Fourth International, The Committee for a Workers International, The International Socialist Tendency – spotted this development as early as the 1990s, and saw it as a golden opportunity to move into the space these parties were vacating. There was the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in Italy, and later the Lefts (Die Linke) in Germany and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France.

In country after country, significant sections of trade union and working class militants too recognised the need for more effective political representation and together this generated a range of initiatives that pushed in the direction of the founding of new political parties.

There has been a particularly abundant crop in Britain: the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish and English Socialist Alliances, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Respect. This was probably because of Tony Blair’s pioneering role in the Third Way retreat from Old Labour and his wanton destruction of its harmless shibboleth (Clause IV) . However, most of these suffered spectacular car crashes, particularly the SSP and Respect.

This has led the initiators of the latest such project Left Unity – many of them veterans of one or more of these failures – to turn to the model of the European Left Parties. In the articles which follow we will look at two examples, the German Die Linke and the French Parti de gauche.

The revolutionaries who participated in these projects did not, however, see this as an opportunity to win the workers involved to a revolutionary programme or a new type of party altogether, one dedicated to the class struggle rather than exclusively to electioneering. Instead they often took the lead in saddling their new parties and alliances with reformist programmes, under the excuse that the workers need to feel at home in something like their old parties or at most their left wings.

From the early 1990s in Italy, RC was a model many looked to, as a truly mass party with serious roots not only in the trade unions but in the social movements, the anticapitalist movement, the anti-war movement. All of these were particularly strong, indeed mass phenomena in Italy.

All those who took part in the mobilisations against the G8 in Genoa in 2001 and the Florence European Social Forum in November 2002 had good cause to be impressed by RC. It was a mass party with organic links to the social forum movement in towns and cities right across Italy. In Florence, a rally attended by thousands of Italian workers, as well as activists from all over Europe, heard RC’s main leader, Fausto Bertinotti, referring to the two years when RC had supported a government led by the Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, promise “never again!”.

Yet, in 2006, RC not only supported but actually entered another Prodi government, citing the need to keep out the Right such as Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini. Bertinotti was rewarded by the presidency of the lower house and RC reciprocated by supporting Italian participation in the occupation of Afghanistan and the extension of a huge US air base near Vicenza to help it wage the war on terror.

The result was a series of splits to the left from RC, followed by a catastrophic defeat for the party in the 2008 elections, when Berlusconi was elected after all. In that election, RC stood as part of the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left), a ridiculous mini-popular front with small anti-corruption and Green parties. Though it still received 1,124,428 votes (it had received over 3 million in 1996), it lost all its deputies and senators. For the first time since the Second World War, not a single deputy calling themselves a Communist was elected to the Italian parliament.

The much praised “broadness” of these parties relates to the fact that they were or are a coalition of one or more types of reformism (Stalinism and Social Democracy) with a variety of self-styled revolutionary groups – Trotskyist or occasionally Maoist in origin. Nearly all have at their core parties, which were once either pro-Moscow Communist parties like the French PCF, or Eurocommunist ones like the Greek Synaspismos. The pioneers of this process back in the 1990s were RC in Italy and the SED/PDS in the former East Germany.

Though these parties may have reformed themselves or undergone what the Fourth International calls “mutation” – and in the process abandoned many of the worst bureaucratic centralist features of old-style Stalinism – they maintain many of its central doctrines, most notably the politics of coalition with non-working class parties (bourgeois or petty bourgeois) typical of the Popular Front, and the peaceful or parliamentary road to socialism. In short, they too were completely reformist parties for all their continued references to Marxism.

Around the turn of the 21st Century, these “mutated” Stalinist parties began to attract left wing forces from the major Social Democratic or Socialist Parties repelled by the fact that the latter were moving ever-rightward, abandoning their roots in the working class and adopting first the neoliberal marketising and privatising “reforms”, and then, after 2008, fully blown austerity policies – i.e. reforms in reverse.

In Germany the left wing of Social Democracy led by Oscar Lafontaine and in France a grouping led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon joined with the ex-Stalinists to form “Left Parties”. To this partnership was soon added various Trotskyist or Maoist groups, willing to act as activists and advisers, and a bridge to more radical and youthful social movements of the early 2000s (anti-war, anticapitalist).

These “new” parties, despite the significant minority of workers they have attracted either as members and voters, have nevertheless whenever faced with the temptations of office – through forming a coalition or electoral blocs with larger reformist or even capitalist parties – demonstrated the same opportunism and aversion to the class struggle as their Labour or Socials Democratic forbears.

They remain parties totally determined to re-run the film of the old reformism for all their more militant rhetoric. Moreover, when it comes to the wars and invasions of their imperialist ruling classes, they have tamely fallen in behind them with at best a little pacifist grumbling.

The studies of the German and French Left Parties below explore the theory and practice of such organisations, now belonging to the European Left Party. Though there is, as yet, no equivalent to them in Britain – the Communist Party of Britain is too insignificant electorally and in terms of its membership, the Labour Left though much reduced is still loyal to the party. However, the subject is important since the founding of Left Unity. The Left Party Platform (now dissolved), which won a majority at the founding conference, regards these parties as the model to be followed in creating a new working class party in Britain. Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International, supports this perspective. We believe their actual record indicates quite the opposite.
The historic capitalist crisis, which began 2007, saw an initial wave of spontaneous resistance, then a crisis of leadership within the trade unions and the resistance movements as the official leadership sabotaged the fightback. But this was soon matched by a failure of the far left to present an alternative to the strategy of surrender pursued by the leaders on both the economic and political front.

The root of this lay not only in their sectarianism but also in their opportunism and failure to confront the union leaders and left reformist parties. Dismayed by its own impotence – the far left developed fatalism about the sheer power and ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, or just blamed the defeats on the weakness of the working class itself.

Ideas flourished on the far left about the outmoded character of the Leninist party model and democratic centralism, about the need to reject building revolutionary organisations as sects, etc.
It was in these circumstances that the electoral breakthrough of Syriza in Greece in 2012 suggested to many that it – and maybe other Left Parties like the Parti de gauche in France and Die Linke in Germany – represented the alternative both to Social Democracy and Leninist “sects”. Faced with these parties open reformism, they replied that we are simply not living in a revolutionary period and will probably not be in one for the foreseeable future – a stance that meant one could adapt Lukacs’ description of Lenin’s outlook to its opposite, “the non-actuality of the revolution”.

Given this conviction in the economic and political stability of capitalism and the non-revolutionary consciousness of the working class, then left reformism embodied in these “broad parties” will, it seems, do nicely for the time being.

But the record of failure and betrayal by many of these parties, and the likelihood of it for the rest speaks heavily against this contention. They too are not fit for purpose, i.e. the purpose of resisting the historic crisis of capitalism and the capitalist solution, combating the imperialist interventions and wars of our rulers, and in periods of crisis struggling for power to impose a workers’, anticapitalist and socialist solution.

Are ‘Broad Parties’ the answer?

Plainly it is the duty of revolutionaries to develop tactics towards these parties, especially their working class membership. Such tactics may include joining them to fight for a revolutionary programme, or where this is not possible, giving them electoral support nevertheless but combining this with revolutionary criticism of their entire strategy. The burning task is to fight for them to join the resistance to austerity, and adopt demands and tactics that break from supporting capitalism and its solutions to crises and wars.

What the existence of these parties does not justify is for revolutionaries to abandon, even “temporarily”, the advocacy and fight for a revolutionary party and a revolutionary programme. Unfortunately this is what just comrades of the Fourth International advocate.

Thus Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance argues:

“...the rightward course of Social democracy had opened up a space to its left which was there to be filled – either by leftward moving ex-CP fragments, or by new broad parties initiated by other sections of the left or by a combination of the two... This new space reflected a growing crisis of working class representation, which could not be filled by the revolutionary organisations alone… because the space which had opened up was not a revolutionary space. It was, and is, a left of Labour/left social democratic/radical left/anticapitalist space, which could only be effectively filled by a broad organisation which could embrace such a range of forces in a democratic framework.”

The logical conclusion from this scenario is that such parties – if they are to include a “broad” spectrum of non-revolutionaries without them abandoning their previous ideas and without us attempting to persuade them to do so – will necessarily mean limiting ourselves to what they will accept. In short such parties must have a reformist programme and a reformist-type structure and practice too. Why? Because that is the shape of the gap “we” have to fill.

In fact if the revolutionaries hide their light under a bushel (in theoretical journals, weighty books and abstract propaganda generally), then of course it is unlikely in the extreme that reformists will succeed in breaking through to revolutionary politics on their own.

Our objection to this, in brief, is that it is an abstract stageist schema: first a (left) reformist party; then perhaps an anticapitalist party that is not fully revolutionary (a centrist party); and finally, only when the prospect of revolution arrives, a fully revolutionary party. This assumes that history does not play any unkind trick on us and suddenly present us with a “space” necessitating type three, whilst we still embroiled building type one.

It also entails revolutionaries defending reformist programmes against those “ultra-lefts” who, failing to realise there is just no “space” for it, naively continue to argue for a revolutionary programme. It also leads unavoidably to revolutionaries defending the present left reformist leaders and bureaucrats, endorsing their right to lead. In summary, it means ceasing to act as a revolutionary even if, as SR comrades suggests, you maintain a revolutionary tendency within such broad parties.

Why? Because such a tendency will not actually fight for leadership or to win the party to a revolutionary programme – not yet! This requires, as Trotsky wrote, keeping two or three classes of programmes, like the pre-war railway carriages with third class for the reformist masses, second class for the (centrist) vanguard, and first class for the revolutionary élite.

This does not at all mean that Workers Power believes that the only road to a revolutionary party is the molecular growth of a small fighting propaganda group – or for that matter revolutionary unity between several of them. On the contrary we think this is a very unlikely development. It ignores the fact that crises within reformist and centrist organisations and parties will occur repeatedly, and that these crises present opportunities for revolutionaries to join forces with militants from these organisations and develop to a revolutionary organisation that really deserves the name of a party. We believe the theory and practice of the founders of Marxism, and Lenin and Trotsky provide us with many examples for fusing a revolutionary programme with the vanguard of the working class.

This includes initiating or participating with trade union leaders in founding labour parties or workers’ parties where there is no existing mass party of the working class; entry into existing reformist parties and winning them or a substantial part of them to forming a revolutionary party; and uniting sizable revolutionary and centrist forces into a revolutionary party. In all these examples the classical Marxists stressed the need not only for participation without issuing ultimatums or demanding preconditions for doing so but, at the same time, resolutely struggling to win them to revolutionary politics.

We believe the method adopted by the classical Marxists as opposed to the method adopted after the Second World War as the “orthodoxy” of the various fragments or descendants of the Fourth International avoids these contradictions. They allow the revolutionaries both to “disdain to conceal their aims”, but nevertheless avoid standing aside from serious moves to the left by significant sections of the working class and its militants.

But we do not have to advocate forming reformist or centrist organisations, nor do we have to take any responsibility for the political straightjackets that those who do place on their own new organisations – indeed we have to warn against the disastrous consequences and urge the membership to break free of them. Above all we must not mimic these trends, in the hope that this will win us a sympathetic audience. It will eventually win us contempt and justly so.