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Party, Programme and Propaganda

Supporters of the Marxist Bulletin resigned from the Socialist Labour Party in early March. The response of the party and its membership to the December congress continued to confirm our analysis that this congress was a significant turning point in the degeneration of the SLP (see ‘Opportunity Squandered’, MB6).

We joined the party in early 1996, like many others excited by the opportunities it presented. But the party these days is anything but exciting. A few loyal activists do most of the work, tiny constituencies struggle to build viable groups, membership numbers stagnate.

We took membership seriously. As members we built and defended the party, but we are no longer prepared to do so. We cannot build something that has become an obstacle to the interests of the working class. It is time to move on. Our resignation letter is printed on page 8.

What next for the Marxist Bulletin?

Revolutionaries are often accused of sectarianism, of sitting comfortably in tiny groups, ignoring real movement in the consciousness of the working class. The birth of the SLP was just such an occasion. We felt at the time that revolutionaries should leap at the chance to be involved – and subsequent events, disappointing as they are, have not lead us to revise that assessment.

However, there is a parallel to sectarianism, a trap which many groups and individuals fall into in fear of isolation – that of mindless rushing after ‘unity’ or ‘the masses’, with little thought as to the basis for that unity or how best to lead the masses in the right direction. This is seen clearly in Britain today with the number of leftists who cannot conceive of leaving the Labour Party, despite its rightward trajectory and the fact that many of the left-wing members they seek to influence are dropping out.

Some leftists are now seeking to apply the same principles to the SLP. Politics is about timing. There are times when we should intersect developments in the working class by joining organisations and seeking to guide them in a revolutionary direction. At other times it is necessary to recognise when a formation is moving in the opposite direction. This is now the case with the SLP.

We are well aware that the politics espoused in this bulletin are not shared by the majority of the British working class, or even of those who describe themselves as revolutionary. But we believe it is a programme developed through the history of the international Marxist movement, learning from the successes and failures of that movement, and one which provides the broad framework necessary for the overthrow of capitalism. We want to convince our readers of this and to build a much larger organisation around this programme.

The British and international working class need a mass party and a programme which are capable of fundamentally changing society. The SLP was an attempt to build a party without a consistently anti-capitalist programme and its failure is partly a consequence of that. There is no easy 12-step method to a mass revolutionary party and from there to a socialist revolution. To paraphrase Marx, we make our own history but not always in the manner of our choosing. Revolutionary groups will grow by small and large increments and will also suffer setbacks. The class as a whole will experience sudden movement, left and right, attempts at party building and false starts. Until we are able to fight as a class for ourselves, armed with a revolutionary programme, we will see a process of spontaneous working class struggles that suffer defeat because of the betrayals of a non-revolutionary leadership.

Revolutionaries must be prepared to be part of real forward steps such as the SLP, insufficient as they may be, and we must tell the truth if they cease to be forward steps. But most of important of all, we must fight tooth and nail for a precious inheritance – the revolutionary programme developed by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and others since. At times when we are very small, the first task is that of propaganda, aimed at defending and building on that programme and winning others to it.

But a programme is not simply propaganda, a programme is a guide to action. We recognise that while we have many differences with others on the left, there are many things we hold in common. On the basis of clarity about where the differences and agreements lie, we can work in united fronts with other groups and individuals around common actions. Examples of this could be opposition to imperialist attacks such as that threatened on Iraq, or defence of basic rights such as abortion, free education and the right to organise in trade unions. In the course of this joint work programmes will be tested and developed.

We are establishing an active propaganda group, based on the politics of the Marxist Bulletin. We are small, but we are ambitious. We will involve ourselves to the extent we are able in the political life of the British working class. We seek to win others on the left to our perspectives in the course of joint action and debate. We want to engage in discussion with other organisations and individuals, moving towards regroupment on the basis of agreement around a revolutionary programme.

We are also internationalists – Britain is not isolated, under either capitalism or socialism. Many of the comrades who support the Marxist Bulletin were involved prior to the formation of the SLP in the British section of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). The rules of the SLP forced us to dissolve that organisational framework – but in doing so we lost none of our politics. We believe that the IBT is the international organisation that most consistently puts forward a revolutionary programme. We will work with the IBT and will sell its international journal 1917. We reprint in this issue a statement taken from the IBT web page about the recent crisis in Iraq.

The IBT sees itself as continuing the tradition of the Bolshevik revolution, the early Comintern, the Trotskyist Fourth International and the fight against Pabloite degeneration among Trotskyist forces worldwide. We argued for this programme within the SLP and will continue to do so as an independent group.

Below we summarise key points of this programme, which we believe are essential for the formation of a revolutionary organisation. While we have agreement with other organisations on some of these points, no other group in Britain at the moment has this full programme. We put this forward as the basis of discussions and debates with other organisations and individuals as a framework for moving towards common programmatic understanding.

Social democracy & Stalinism

In August 1914 sections of the social-democratic Second International betrayed the working class by supporting their own bourgeoisies in the First World War, leading Karl Liebknecht to develop the slogan, ‘The main enemy is at home’. Revolutionaries broke with the Second International and went on to form the Third, building on the success of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. However, the Third International itself betrayed, when the suicidal and ultra-leftist policies of the German Communist Party paved the way to Hitler taking power in 1933. The defence of these ‘Third Period’ policies by the Comintern led to Leon Trotsky’s call for a Fourth International, which was founded in 1938 on the basis of Trotsky’s transitional programme, ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’.

Today we see the results of both these betrayals in the capitulationist policies of social-democratic and Labour parties on the one hand and Stalinist organisations on the other. Both are contradictory types of formation that claim to stand for the interests of the working class through policies which support capitalism. In Britain today, both are in crisis. The Labour party has been taken over by forces seeking to resolve the contradiction from inside by transforming it into a bourgeois liberal party. British Stalinism is fragmented and deeply disorientated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. All leading elements of the trade union movement are held fast in the grip of one or the other, or sometimes both.

The revolutionary party

It is essential more than ever to call for a political framework opposed to both, based on the transitional programme and the politics of the Fourth International. But most organisations claiming to stand in the Fourth International tradition are politically too close to either social-democracy or Stalinism. In the early 1950s the Fourth International was torn apart, as the leadership around Michel Pablo advocated ‘deep entry’ into the Stalinist parties, believing that they could be pressured to the left and it was not necessary to build independent revolutionary organisations. Most so-called Trotskyist organisations today are influenced by Pabloism in one way or another – in Britain this has traditionally taken the form of ‘deep entry’ into the Labour Party.

Only very weak and fragmented forces put up a struggle against Pablo’s dominance of the Fourth International, but we must continue that struggle today – in the fight for an independent revolutionary party that can lead the working class, not follow behind its existing reformist organisations.

The transitional programme

Social democracy and Stalinism hold in common a programmatic method that on the one hand puts forward immediate demands to address needs of the moment, and on the other hand talks of ‘long-term aims’ of socialism. This minimum/maximum programme, despite its rhetoric, has the effect of being simply reformist, because no real link is made between minimum and maximum. The revolutionary Comintern and then the Fourth International worked instead on the basis of a transitional programme that seeks to build a bridge from one to the other. We must say unambiguously that the real needs of the working class cannot be met under capitalism. At the same time we must participate in day to day fights to meet those needs, extending our demands as a means of weakening capitalism and convincing others that a revolutionary strategy is necessary to fundamentally end oppression and exploitation.

The united front

We work on specific immediate demands together with other sections of the workers’ movement, from revolutionaries to reformists and all shades in between, in alliances in which it is made clear where the basis of agreement lies. During the course of this work we put forward our full programme, in distinction to reformist and centrist ideas, and link the current demands and concerns of the united front to the wider struggle for workers’ state power. We do not demand that the united front take on our full programme, but seek to discuss with and convince others in the debate that arises naturally through the problems thrown up by common work.

There is a crucial distinction between, on the one hand, a united front based on one or a few demands, inclusive of all those who support them, and, on the other, an organisation with a full social programme. Many organisations try to paper over this distinction by ignoring differences and creating long lists of things they all agree with – which give the appearance of a full programme without providing any real solutions to the crises provoked by capitalism. Such ‘unity’ without real agreement can only mislead the working class.

Basic class solidarity is also represented by the trade unions, which are by definition class-based organisations. We will participate in united fronts to defend the right of unions to organise and to oppose all anti-union laws, and we also seek to take our Marxist programme into the unions and form militant caucuses to fight for revolutionary politics within the wider class struggle.

Another form of the united front is critical support to working class parties in elections. The politics of the reformist parties who claim to stand for the working class mean they cannot in fact defend our interests. Lenin defined these as bourgeois workers’ parties – contradictory organisations with a working class base but a bourgeois programme. Many workers support these parties because even in some deformed way they present themselves as being on the side of the working class. At times revolutionaries will call for a critical vote for such parties to tear apart the contradiction, saying that we believe they will betray their promises, but if the workers who vote for them do not agree we will help them into power to put them to the test.

This support to bourgeois workers’ parties is not automatic. The Labour Party in Britain today hardly makes any pretence of standing in the interests of its working class supporters, and makes no promises to the working class as a class – there is no contradiction to exploit. In fact the project of the Labour leadership is to get rid of any links to the working class and instead stand for big business and the ‘middle classes’.

At other times, when the contradictions within a non-revolutionary organisation produce significant political leftward motion – either the organisation as a whole or a significant part – revolutionaries will join that organisation, again to exploit contradictions, draw a clear class line and attempt to win the organisation, or a section of it, to revolutionary politics. This was the method of entrism advocated by Lenin and Trotsky – unfortunately translated by much of the British left into a recipe for endless membership of the Labour Party.

The popular front

All of the above methods of working with others of different views have one thing in common – they seek to build joint work along class lines and around defence of the basic interests of the working class. They seek to expose the treacherous leaders of the working class and show in practice that these leaders only posture as being on our side and are in fact on the side of the bourgeoisie.

At times those leaders take things further and explicitly join forces with the bourgeoisie in what is known as a popular front – an alliance between bourgeois workers’ parties and bourgeois parties. Examples are the policy carried out by the Stalinists in the 1930s, Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile in the early 1970s, the Lab-Lib coalition in Britain in the late 1970s and the present Olive Tree government in Italy. The effect of this is to hold back the working class in struggle. The leaders tell the workers not to be too militant or they will offend ‘our’ bourgeois allies, break up the coalition and let the right wing into power. In fact a working class which cannot struggle is precisely a recipe for the victory of the right, as dramatically demonstrated in Chile by Pinochet’s bloodbath against the workers that Allende had refused to arm.

In these cases there can be no support, however critical. A bourgeois workers’ party in coalition with the bourgeoisie makes no pretence of standing for the workers as a class but rather stands for ‘class unity’ (which is always in the interests of the ruling class). Revolutionaries do not join such formations and we will not vote for them, even the working class component – instead we call for the workers’ candidates to break from the popular front and stand openly in the name of the working class, as a precondition for any kind of support.

The national question

Marxists fight all forms of injustice and will defend the interests of all the oppressed and exploited. National oppression is one such injustice, which poisons the relations between workers of different countries and is a barrier to international working class solidarity. However, the answer is not nationalism – an ideology that promotes the unity of all classes within a nation. Instead we point out that nations, and national oppression, are a product of capitalism. It is as part of the struggle against capitalism that we oppose all forms of national oppression, support the right of nations to self-determination and take sides with oppressed nations fighting imperialism. For example, we call for defence of Iraq against imperialist attack and for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Ireland.

There are cases, however, where two nations are intermingled, with both claiming the same territory as their own – for example in Israel/Palestine, the north of Ireland, Cyprus and many parts of the former Yugoslavia. In these cases many leftists opt for a solution of support to whichever nation is oppressed at any one time and call for the self-determination of that nation. But oppression can be reversed. Marxists do not support the self-determination of one national grouping at the expense of another. This will not remove a barrier to class unity; it will only create further barriers.

All of this is in the context of fighting for greater working class unity across national borders. We do not usually advocate separation, but there are times when the national question has so poisoned relations between workers of different national grouping that separation can actually promote class unity. We call for the widest possible international solidarity, recognising that workers have more in common with workers of other countries than with our ‘own’ bosses.

Special oppression

Capitalism has many other methods for dividing the working class – racial and sexual oppression being the most pervasive. We will fight for concrete measures to oppose this oppression such as: equality of wages, work opportunities and education; free, quality childcare, contraception and abortion; choice of sexual expression among all those capable of informed consent; opposition to deportations and capitalist immigration controls; and self-defence against racist and fascist attacks.

We are often joined in such struggles by individuals and organisations who advocate ideologies such as black nationalism or feminism. We recognise what we have in common in the course of this work, but we believe these ideologies can offer no solution. They only perpetuate the division of the working class along race or gender lines. We say that capitalism is the root of this oppression in today’s society and our fight against specific forms of oppression is an integral part of the struggle against capitalism, the only means of ensuring full social equality.

The Soviet Union & the deformed workers’ states

All of these struggles have one long-term objective – to take state power in the name of the working class. This was achieved in Russia in 1917 when the Bolsheviks took power with the support of the majority of the soviets, the organisations of the working class that had risen up in the course of the revolutionary struggle. They began the establishment of a state that fought oppression of all types.

However, the failure of revolutions elsewhere left the Soviet state in isolation, besieged by the capitalist world, and the revolution degenerated under the leadership of the Stalinists. This privileged bureaucratic caste politically expropriated the working class, yet remained dependent on the collectivised property and planned economy established by the revolution.

The result was described by Trotsky as a deeply contradictory phenomenon, a degenerated workers’ state. After the Second World War, under Soviet influence other states of an essentially similar nature were formed without going through the stages of workers’ revolution and subsequent degeneration. Trotsky argued that the Soviet Union should be defended against imperialist attack or the threat of capitalist counterrevolution, but it could only survive long-term and move towards a communist society if the workers themselves took power from the Stalinist parasites in a political revolution.

Now the contradictions in the Soviet bloc have been resolved in favour of capitalism. We saw the last gasp of Stalinist resistance in the Soviet coup of August 1991, easily swept away by pro-capitalist forces under Boris Yeltsin, precipitating the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism. Revolutionaries were on the side of the coupists in those three crucial days, while calling for the working class to take the struggle out of their hands, as the only means of achieving victory.

Counterrevolution swiftly followed in the Eastern European deformed workers’ states, leaving only a handful of non-capitalist countries, Cuba, China, North Korea and Vietnam. These we still defend against imperialism and counterrevolution, while calling for workers’ political revolution as the means to both defend and extend the social gains won so far.

The state & revolution

The restoration of capitalism in the Soviet bloc was a historical defeat of vast proportions for the international working class. We must learn from history to avoid a repetition of such defeats. A crucial question here is the nature of the state. Lenin, and Engels before him, defined the state as bodies of armed men who defend particular property forms in the interests of a particular class. To defend the interests of a different class the state must be decisively smashed and a new one built up on the ruins of the old.

A state cannot be benign or neutral, as reformists will claim. The forces of the capitalist state operate in a thousand ways to protect the means of production that serve the capitalist class and exploit the workers. A capitalist state cannot be reformed piecemeal to serve the interests of the working class. It will move to defend itself – and so will we. Fundamental change will only come about through revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, and the establishment of a new state run by the working class, in the interests of all the exploited and oppressed.