What makes a workers’ party?
The recent Labour leadership election and its aftermath have posed some important questions for socialists. Not only do the results raise the question of the end of Corbynism, they pose sharply the need to fight for genuine political representation for working-class people. Here, HUGH CAFFREY, from the Socialist Alternative political committee, asks the question: what is a workers’ party? And how does the need for such a party fit in with the overall struggle to transform society along socialist lines?
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The election of Starmer and Rayner to the leading positions of the Labour Party is a significant setback for the Corbyn project and the left in general, and has provoked much discussion about what conclusions should be drawn. In Socialist Alternative we have put forward a series of ideas and demands, the general underpinning of which is our understanding of what a mass workers’ party is and what role it plays as a force for struggle. We have not developed these ideas out of wishful thinking, but through political understanding based on historical experience.
Capitalism cannot be incrementally transformed by parliamentary manoeuvres and cannot be removed by parliamentary vote. To force major concessions upon the ruling class – let alone to permanently overthrow the rule of the multinationals and landlords, and their lackey politicians and media, and the huge power of their state machine – requires a mass movement with the working class playing the central role and uniting behind it all the oppressed and exploited.
Parliamentary struggle is not unimportant but is ultimately subordinate to extra-parliamentary struggle, and will tend to reflect the balance of class forces in society at one step removed. Against the forces available to capitalism and the inevitable variations of understanding and local situations, it is necessary for a mass revolutionary movement to have a strong, experienced and clear-sighted leadership which enjoys the trust and confidence of the masses.
This necessarily must take the form of a large revolutionary party with a developed leadership and a vibrant internal democracy, steeled in the class struggle. This is the kind of organisation which Socialist Alternative aims to build, and the kind of organisation which Marxists back to Marx himself have sought to build, exemplified by the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, and co-led by Trotsky from mid-1917.
Where then is the space for a mass workers’ party in this? Why do we not simply argue for a mass revolutionary workers’ party? While building this mass revolutionary party is what we are about, we know that the real life of the struggle as it evolves is more complex than this. Before millions of working-class people decide that there is ultimately no way out under capitalism and a revolution is required, and throw their weight actively behind this, many millions will draw the conclusions that a party of their own is required.
In the same way as six million workers in Britain still, despite everything, understand that they need a trade union at work because their interests are not at all identical with that of their employers and so they need their own economic organisation, then millions will understand that the same is true in society as a whole and they need their own political organisation on their terms. The half a million or so who joined the Labour Party to support Corbyn, based on a broad conception that a party different to the establishment parties was necessary to oppose austerity and implement left-wing policies, are a foreshadowing of the much greater numbers who will travel a similar path towards independent working-class political representation.
The fury which the media and ruling class rained down on the modest steps taken under Corbyn, which never actually did transform the Labour Party fundamentally away from the Blairite formation established in the 90s and 2000s, indicates just how profoundly the establishment of a genuinely mass party by for and of the working class would shake British society. The role of revolutionaries is to support all steps in this direction, even partial steps such as that of the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party, seek to actively participate and advocate what needs to be done next in order to achieve the most effective political instrument for working-class people to change the conditions they face.
We see any and all steps towards this not as ends in themselves, but as links in the chain towards the building of a mass revolutionary party, through winning the argument at each stage. This starts with mass political organisation on the level which is possible at the time, which at this stage will not be a revolutionary level. We retain our revolutionary ideas and put them forward in political movements just as we do in the trade unions, community campaigns and social movements.
What is a workers’ party? It isn’t just a party which some workers are members of, because many capitalist parties could claim to be this. It is a party which is made up of working-class people at all levels of its existence, is controlled by and accountable to working-class people through democratic structures and their organisations (unions, social organisations, co-operatives etc), is based around a political programme to advance workers’ interests, and, crucially, is a structure through which working-class people can organise to carry out their struggles. It isn’t just a party which supports struggle, as undoubtedly Corbyn was attempting to do with Labour, but a party through which struggle is organised, and in which struggle can be reflected.
Achieving this would have required a root and branch transformation of the Labour party in terms of democratisation, orientation towards struggle, the mass ousting of the Blairites from their parliamentary and municipal positions, and the democratic collective involvement of the trade unions. While we think that under Starmer such a transformation has become overwhelmingly less likely than it was before, we still seek to discuss with lefts in the Labour party about what would be necessary in order to achieve this as well as those outside Labour about how political struggle can be built in the communities and workplaces.
We argue for the left inside and outside of the Labour party to come together and discuss how workers’ political representation could be achieved, starting with the struggle against the capitalist Covid crisis and the attempts by the capitalist class to make workers pay for the oncoming economic crash. On the basis of mass struggle around these issues, it should be possible to see the beginnings of a mass working-class political organisation which could then crystallise over a period of time into a mass workers’ party. The extent to which this takes place inside or outside of the Labour party will be settled in the course of events, but can only take place upon the basis of mass struggle.
Mass parties are not only parties of struggle, but founded through struggle. The Labour Party was founded on the basis of the experience of the British working class in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the impact this had upon their trade unions (including new unions) and new organisations of socialists and Marxists. Without the mass workplace struggles and significant social struggle, the Labour Party would not have been formed. Marxists and socialists more generally played a very important role in hastening its formation and in the arguments around what kind of party and programme were needed, and much can be learned from looking at what took place then, including learning the lessons of the mistakes of some and the rotten role of others especially on the right of the movement.
Just as it was a process of struggle and experiementation in the 1880s and 1890s, and even in the 1900s in the formative years of Labour, it will not be a simple process now. Steps and half-steps by significant forces are far more important than the accomplished facts declared by sectarians or small groups, which is why we will participate in all serious initiatives which we believe point in the right direction, but will do so critically in the sense that we will constructively explain what we see as shortcomings and advocate a way forward.
Nor is a genuine mass party of the working class primarily an electoral organisation. In Britain, where parliament has existed longer and broadly uninterruptedly to a greater degree than anywhere else, potentially elections will play a bigger part in the process towards and activities of a workers’ party than in some other countries. We can see aspects of this in the election campaigns of Corbyn for Labour leader and of Corbyn-led Labour for government, and actually to a greater degree in the importance of the Bernie Sanders campaigns in the US for Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 and 2020. Challenges for electoral office played a major part in the steps towards Labour’s formation, with election campaigns by Marxists and socialists for parliament, local authorities, and even school boards. However, one of the major deficiencies of Labour almost from its formation was the near-exclusive parliamentary orientation, reflecting the dominance of the parliamentary group and their accommodation to capitalism.
Labour has historically had many good left fighting MPs, especially the Militant-supporting MPs of the 1980s, as well as wretched right-wing servants of capital such as Ramsay McDonald, Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, and so forth. But Labour at its most relevant to the working class was based more on workers’ struggle and organisation than election campaigns. A massive working-class revolt in 1944 and 1945 drove Labour leftwards and in office held it to more of its programme than would otherwise have been the case, not least the creation of the NHS and funding the building of millions of council houses.
This was an active involvement in Labour and a huge wave of industrial struggle and political organisation beyond Labour. The movements in Poplar in the 1920s, Clay Cross in the 1970s and particularly Liverpool in the 1980s under Militant leadership all took place around councils with left councillors in a majority, but were prepared through previous waves of workers’ struggle and based on a mass movement from below in the workplaces and communities which was reflected within Labour in those areas, and the advances made in the council chamber and at the ballot box emboldened working class people to go further still.
Collective working-class involvement was possible within Labour then, at least at a local level and particularly in Liverpool, to express the desires of working-class people, organise a struggle, select candidates and deselect candidates, and to instruct those in the council chamber. A similar form of mass working class political organisation was developed in all the great examples of mass workers’ parties elsewhere, many of which were more left-wing at their best then Labour ever was, such as the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the late 19th century, or the Workers’ Party of Brazil in the 1980s, not withstanding the reformist and then outright pro-capitalist degeneration of these parties in later years.
The first mass political organisation of the working class in the world, the British Chartist movement of the 1840s, did not take the form of a party in the modern sense of the word but nonetheless at its high points had many of these most essential features.
Establishing such a party as this, on any political programme, is the best step towards a really serious struggle for reforms, and a sure step towards much more radical political conclusions being drawn about the need for revolution. Without such an organisation, the working class is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. A cursory comparison with the Labour party in recent years shows how far needed to be gone to transform Labour into a real workers’ political instrument. Moreover, instructive comparisons can be drawn with the many ‘new left formations’ such as Syriza, Podemos, and so on, which while on the left have not orientated towards struggle or been based on working class struggle or offered a vehicle for class struggle by workers, except in the most limited electoral sense. Under the pressure of the post-2008 austerity onslaught, these parties moved even further towards a parliamentary orientation and accommodation to the system, aided by their shallow roots. The dreadful capitalution of Syriza in office is the logical upshot.
Only deep roots and a struggle orientation with active participation by wide sections of workers can begin to resist the colossal pressures capitalist society places on political organisations which seek to at least partially challenge it. The sister organisations of Socialist Alternative in England Wales & Scotland, which are organised in over 30 countries globally through International Socialist Alternative, are present in many of these battles: in the US, Greece, Spain, Brazil and so on.
We have welcomed the establishment of the new left formations, taken part insofar as is possible, and crucially have sought to face them towards struggle while also taking part in elections. Just as the historical experience of previous decades and centuries is rich in lessons, so is the recent experience of workers and Marxists internationally. We seek to bring together these past and present experiences in the shape of our ideas and programme – here and internationally – to arm working-class and young people in the fight for a future worthy of the working and toiling majority, a democratic socialist world.