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Revolutionary unity – a proposal

To choose the present moment to propose that the revolutionary left in Britain should unite its forces to build a new revolutionary socialist party will seem positively quixotic to most people. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), by far the largest far left group, is in disarray, if not in meltdown. The Socialist Party (SP) continues to think of itself alone as being the centre of the labour movement, and everyone else as being “on the fringes” of it.

The five-year crisis of world capitalism has led to a crisis of the far left, and this is an international and not just a British crisis. In France it is expressed in the splits and dramatic decline in numbers of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA). In Italy it is reflected in the splintering and demoralisation of the Italian left – a painful contrast to its flourishing situation ten years ago, witnessed by all those who attended during the first European Social Forum in Florence. Even the libertarian left, which many in 2011 thought had found the answer with the US Occupy movement, has seen this movement dissipate, leaving little in the way of permanent organisation.

These splits in the left extend into a movement of resistance against austerity that cries out for maximum unity in action if the jobs, rights and social gains of the working class, young people, women and migrant communities are to be defended. Some people say that it is the very existence of socialist groups with their own programmes and internal discipline that is to blame. We do not agree. We believe that such propaganda groups have always existed, and will do so until and unless a party of the working class vanguard unites all those who are not willful sectarians, uninterested in the class struggle.

Workers Power has always rejected the idea that as soon as a group reaches a few hundred or a few thousand members, it can simply proclaim itself “the party” and thereafter just invite the working class to join its ranks. This approach was seen most in its most extreme form with the Workers Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healy between 1973 and 1985. But more modest versions of this approach have included the proclamation of the Socialist Workers Party (founded in January 1977), the Socialist Party (founded in 1997) and the Scottish Socialist Party (founded in 1998).

The belief that an organisation that is still really what Trotsky would have called a propaganda society has become the vanguard party of the working class, its revolutionary leadership, leads to it developing a false relationship to the mass struggles and organisations of the working class. If such a “party” cannot in reality lead the class or even its vanguard in struggle, then it feels driven to establish at least the illusion of this relationship with imitation mass formations.

The most common form of this is the habit of transforming the revolutionary tactic of a united front with the mass organisations of the working class, that is, unions and mass parties still under reformist and bureaucratic leadership, into mere campaigns on issues like war, racism and fascism, or a rank and file organisation in the unions, which accept from day one the “party’s” open or thinly disguised control or hegemony. These “fronts” can then be used as closed recruiting grounds. The illusion of a genuine workers’ united front can then be maintained by annual conferences, at which some prominent left union leaders and MPs speak, but at which nothing of significance for the movement at large is decided.

But there are today – in spite of everything – good reasons not to despair. Firstly, a considerable number of courageous individuals in the SWP are fighting back against their leadership’s bureaucratic follies. If, as we sincerely hope, they succeed in rallying the membership to call this leadership to order and go on to institute a new regime, and if they put an end to the SWP’s “party front” policy, presently embodied in Right to Work and Unite the Resistance, then some good can come out of the present evil.

If as a result of this, and as a result of debate with the rest of the left, the SWP adopt a sensible and honest united front policy in the anti-austerity movement, then at we could create a movement as powerful at the local, regional and national levels as the Stop the War movement was in its early days. This would be fertile soil in which a deeper revolutionary unity could take root and grow.

We believe this can happen – if we take certain definite steps together.

The first means seeking agreement on a common immediate policy to defeat the Coalition’s attack on the post-war gains of the working class. The second – a far more difficult one it must be admitted – is to work towards creating a revolutionary party with a programme for working class power, drawing into its creation as many as yet unaffiliated working class and youth militants as possible.

What are the key policies we believe are needed today?

•Unite all the anticuts and grassroots union movements into a single massive resistance movement similar to the antiwar movement of 2002 to 2004

• Work in the unions to coordinate the planned sectional strikes into all-out action to stop all the cuts

• Campaign to make the TUC call a general strike to drive this government from power

• Build local councils of action to coordinate the defence of our jobs and services, to fight for a general strike and, if it is called, to fight to control it

• Build a rank and file movement in every union and across the unions to democratise the unions, taking action with the official leadership where possible, and without it where necessary

• Build an antifascist workers’ united front to stop the marches and meetings of the EDL and the BNP, denying them any platform for their racist filth

• Build international solidarity, especially with Greece, and pan-European action and coordination of the resistance

We can start today by simply uniting the rival anticuts campaigns. But to do so means pursuing a policy independent of all wings of the trade union bureaucracy. This does not at all mean standing aloof from united action with the union leaders whenever they fight. Indeed even when they do not fight, we must challenge them to do so and do all in our power to win their membership to such action.

By this means we could advance from today’s swamp of “factions without a party” to being, if important differences cannot be overcome, factions within a single party, but one that is capable of united and disciplined action in the class struggle. Anyone who remembers the initial enthusiasm and comradeship of the early days of the Socialist Alliance should be aware that such unity could give a powerful initial impulse.

But this unity in action would not suffice unless a serious and loyal debate, both internal and public, was initiated to discover the strategic questions that unite us as well as those still dividing us. In a debate on programme, all the tendencies involved should advance their viewpoints. A series of commissions, working groups and conferences should aim at a draft, which is not a lowest common denominator but the highest common factor of a revolutionary strategy.

But as well as the question of programme we need to debate what sort of organisation is necessary to fight for it. Events today show how vital it is to ensure that a party does not succumb to bureaucracy, and that means establishing genuinely democratic centralism. Apologists for capitalism, reformists and anarchists alike say that this is a contradiction in terms. That it was always a bureaucratic and undemocratic way of organising. This is not true.

Democratic centralism – as the Bolsheviks practised it – means the maximum of debate and discussion within the party over the correct strategy and tactics to adopt. It means the right of members to form temporary groupings, as well as longer-term tendencies and factions with no constitutional time limit. But an open and flourishing democracy and well thought out policies and tactics should also mean that such groupings are spontaneously not permanent features, or even the “normal” way that internal debate is conducted.

However, when a decision on a policy or specific action has been reached, it requires disciplined unity in its implementation by all members in a loyal manner, to the best of their abilities. Then, once the campaign or battle is over and the results can be seen, it allows for full and democratic appraisal of it once again.

Is there a guarantee we will succeed in unifying the whole left? Not at all: political life does not offer us such guarantees. But at least some – maybe many – of the more unnecessary divisions on the left could be overcome. The history of the Russian revolutionary movement and the early years of the Communist International prove that the unification of revolutionaries hailing from diverse traditions is a real possibility. We ought to try to do so today. The severity of the capitalist crisis and repeated failure to create a party that can seriously raise the prospect of working class power presents the prospects of far more serious defeats ahead.

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