What kind of party do we need? - Ben Lewis
Fighting on two fronts - Ben Lewis of the CPGB gives his view, taken from a speech to Communist University 2012
Ben Lewis: principled
is certainly appropriate to finish our annual Communist University by
debating this question. It is, after all, the most pressing one
facing our class today, not only in this country, but
internationally: how to organise our class into a party that can
challenge the dominance of and overthrow the capitalist system.
in the CPGB follow Marx in arguing that without a party the working
class cannot act as a class. This party must, if the working class is
to pursue its independent interests, be a party of millions with real
social roots - its own press, educational associations, sports
federations, cooperatives, etc. Most importantly, though, it must
have a programme to map out how to win the battle of democracy, to
address how we are ruled, how to overcome that rule and to usher in
workers’ power. The fundamentals of this programme must be: working
class independence; no strategic alliances with the bourgeoisie;
democracy in the state and in our own movement; and internationalism.
kind of party, then? In order to make my case I want to look at four
of the templates that are often offered on the left for the kind of
party we need.
first one is the ‘Leninist party’, the ‘fighting propaganda
group’. The second one is the ‘new’ workers’ party, which is
often based on the idea of the trade unions breaking with the Labour
Party. The third is a broad network seeking to unite in action, as
comrade Simon Hardy has written, “convinced individual anarchists,
syndicalists, left reformists and perhaps even those who do not
accept the class struggle”. Fourthly, those who see the Labour
Party as the only game in town, where we must concentrate all our
efforts in order to push the party to the left, towards ‘socialism’.
first template - the Trotskyist-Leninist party, the fighting
propaganda group - is, I think, the most important one in terms of
understanding where we are and overcoming our divisions. I am a
Leninist. For me Lenin was a partyist, a democrat and, like a good
Second International revolutionary Marxist, he fought for the unity
of the party on the basis of the acceptance of a revolutionary
programme: unity in action, but freedom to publicly criticise. But
today’s left, tragically, bears very little relationship to this
approach. It is unfortunately the case that even the most vehemently
and honestly anti-Stalinist of our comrades today base themselves on
a party conception which is steeped in Stalinism and the unhealthiest
aspects of our class’s culture in the 20th century.
result is an organisation that restricts debate and open expressions
of dissent in the name of activism, where comrades are constantly
running around, not ‘wasting time’ with voicing their criticisms
in the party press, etc. That model can be traced back to Joseph
party conception, shared by far too many today, is a significant
block on our ability to move forward, because it actually leads to an
endless cycle of splits - often over silly and unnecessary things. It
is not that there are not big divisions or fundamental questions that
need to be addressed, but gagging dissident or minority views breeds
further splintering and overall fragmentation. Even though the open
expression of differences is no guarantee against splits, what
certainly will guarantee them is if comrades in a minority are
effectively banned from fighting to become the majority. It is
bureaucratic centralism passing itself off as democratic centralism.
order to remain a member of such organisations you must agree - or at
least claim to agree in public - with a particular theory or set of
ideas down to the finest detail. For these comrades, anything less
than upholding their own particular dogma is some manifestation of
centrism or whatever. Nonetheless, in their practical, day-to-day
approach, centrism is actually what they practise.
brings me to the ‘broad workers’ party’ model. Fundamentally,
many on the left argue for such reformist organisations (Socialist
Alliance, Respect, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) as a way
of gaining some short-term influence beyond their own ranks: ie,
beyond the small numbers who will actually agree and defend
particular sect shibboleths. The ‘broad workers’ party’
approach, then, seeks a bigger pond in which to swim. And it is
conceived - to take an example from Richard Brenner of Workers Power
- as “not the revolutionary party we need, but a way of getting
there”, a kind of first step. Thus, or so the logic goes,
concessions to reformism and Labourism are fully justified.
approach is often accompanied by the view that the trade unions ought
to break from Labour. The idea, of course, is that the tightly knit,
activist, propagandist group can start from reformist demands that do
not scare off the trade union bureaucracy and gradually win broader
layers to accept the need for revolution and a revolutionary party.
not only is such a method dishonest - watering down one’s true
politics and confining one’s ‘Marxism’ to little-read left
journals: it also clearly does not work. We have seen failure
after failure, where purported revolutionaries limit their politics
in the name of short-term influence and winning over largely phantom
allies to their right.
democracy, motherhood and apple pie pledges about defending the NHS,
being opposed to racism and so on are not signposts to revolutionary
Marxism. The politics of Edward Bernstein do not lead to the kind of
revolutionary party we need - no matter how much ‘action’ we
engage in. But this is the common-sense understanding that the left
has at the moment. They say: ‘Here is our particular interpretation
of Marxism, but in order to gain recruits we need to offer them
something else.’ It does not work.
this context let me briefly refer to some of the debates we have had
with comrade Simon Hardy and others around the Anti-Capitalist
Initiative. On the surface this model attempts to break with the
sect-building approach of the type that Simon Hardy opposed in the
latter days of his membership of Workers Power, but at the same time
it retains the idea that the way out of the left’s current quagmire
lies in ‘action’ - again alongside largely phantom allies in what
the comrades conceive as some kind of mass movement: Occupy, UK
ACI, especially since the recent departure of Workers Power, tends
more in the direction of network ‘activism’ than the creation of
a new halfway house party, but the flawed, liquidationist method I
have described above is still present. Its proponents always stress
the ‘new’ ideas it embodies, the novelty of their approach. But I
am afraid it is a very old, and indeed failed, method.
was speaking to comrade Stewart King of Permanent Revolution at the
founding of the ACI and he was absolutely clear to me that it is the
role of Marxists to “minoritise” ourselves in order to appeal to
the activists we are aiming to attract. In effect the Marxists in the
ACI have ‘minoritised’ their views - the organisation has shied
away from taking up any political positions at all thus far.
surely it is incumbent on Marxists to say what we believe in, what we
hold to be the truth. Unfortunately, we on the far left are already
in the minority. We will have to start off in small rooms. But in
order to take real steps forward we need to start arguing for what we
actually believe in, and not treat Marxism as some sort of add-on, or
the exclusive preserve of those actually running things behind
the scenes. In order to move forward we must unite around the
politics we purportedly uphold.
Simon assures us that no-one in the ACI has renounced Marxist
politics or the need for a revolutionary party. But in a letter to
the Weekly Worker he and Chris Strafford write: “… we are
realistic that we simply cannot slap down a Marxist programme and
rally thousands to our banner” (May 10). The implication is that,
for the moment, we must be “realistic”, but in the future,
somehow, we will manage to win our allies to Marxism.
whilst superficially the ACI offers a critique of the standard
‘Leninist party’ approach, in practice it throws the baby out
with the bathwater and abandons the fight for a genuine Marxist
party. To the extent that this is theorised, as opposed to being a
mere reaction to the bureaucratic centralism of Workers Power, it is
justified by Pham (‘Please intervene in Syria’) Binh’s
liquidationist conclusions and/or packaged in terms of building
‘something like the First International’. Yet, as we all know,
Marx did not actually set up the First International. He
intervened in it, because it represented a genuine step forward in
the mass movement itself. But that intervention strove to push the
project in a partyist direction. The ‘First International’
argument is thus nothing but an ahistorical ‘left’ cover for
broad frontist liquidationism.
the efforts of sections of the left to set up a new (Labourite)
‘broad workers’ party’, the Labour Party, of course, still
exists. Millions still identify with it, and that matters.
me be clear. The Labour Party has never been the kind of party needed
for working class self-liberation and socialism. It has always been
dominated by nationalism, constitutionalism and imperialism. Like the
trade union bureaucracy it is tied to the capitalist state by a
thousand strings, yet it continues to enjoy the support and
membership of millions of individual and affiliated working class
people. So there is a contradiction here that we must seek to
CPGB’s approach to the Labour Party tries to avoid two traps: on
the one hand, we do not collapse into typical Labour entryism,
becoming left Labourites and effectively abandoning the fight for a
Marxist party. On the other hand, we recognise the importance of and
seek to intervene in Labour Party politics, rejecting the claim that
it has become a bourgeois party pure and simple.
is what the CPGB says in its theses on the Labour Party: “Overcoming
Labourism is a central strategic task for communists in Britain.
Toadying as loyal lieutenants to left Labourites, keeping one’s
‘true’ politics under wraps, burying oneself in the bowels of the
Labour Party and subordinating everything to staying in there till
the glorious day when the class struggle transforms it into an
instrument of socialism is naive at best. At worst it is downright
treachery. On the other hand, to stand aloof from the Labour Party
and its internal disputes and conflicts is as good as useless. A
typical left sectarian pose” (Weekly Worker October 21
do we overcome Labourism? Just as we do outside the party, we have to
champion the politics of Marxism. In this connection I want to zoom
in on one particular question that plagues the Labour left: the
notion that somehow it is incumbent upon us to argue and agitate for
a Labour government. But a key tenet of Labourism is the strategic
alliance between the workers’ movement and the capitalist state.
While obviously it is possible to win reforms - depending, of course
on the balance of class forces - our class cannot gain power and
advance to socialism through administering the capitalist state. The
aim should be for a government capable of implementing our full
minimum programme for workers’ power.
part of the fight for workers’ power we must demand the removal of
all bans and proscriptions within the Labour Party - together with
every other manifestation of capitalist interference in the
organisations of our class. We are clear that the fight to transform
the Labour Party, in order to turn it into what it originally claimed
to be - a federal organisation of the workers’ movement as a whole
- will not be won overnight. But we must seek to constantly bring out
the contradictions between the working class base and the
are also clear that the revolution we envisage is not contingent upon
such a transformation. The fight within Labour might fail. What is
fundamental to us is not to bury ourselves in Labour Party work for
its own sake, but to organise as communists in order to build a
Marxist party with its own independent existence, its own programme.
is absolutely necessary and entirely possible, even with our forces
as dispersed and weak as they are now, to fight to change the balance
of forces both inside and outside the Labour Party in order to
rebuild our movement. But making even the most tentative steps in
that direction presupposes getting serious about uniting the vanguard
of our class into a party openly committed to the world historical
outlook of Marxism, rejecting the ‘first step’ of Labourism or
social democracy, or pandering to anarchism or syndicalism. We want
to win over anarchists and syndicalists, just as we want to win over
Labourites, but not as they are: we want to win them to Marxism.
is actually where the viewpoints of comrades Hardy and Phipps
actually converge. As a Labourite, comrade Phipps thinks that
potential ‘Marxist’ parties cannot be anything more than
insignificant sects because they are supposedly based on ideology.
For his part, comrade Hardy appears to be reacting against the
doubtless negative experience of belonging to such an ‘ideological’
sect. But neither seems to countenance the possibility of democratic
unity around a Marxist programme.
should be and indeed is far-sighted, bold and inspiring in its
global, historical vision. But currently the far left, with our
stupid divisions, our frivolous attitudes towards splitting and
frontist fakery, render these ideas pathetic, absurd, almost
millenarian in the eyes of the very people we should be winning to
our cause. We have a great responsibility and those who remain
committed to working class socialism must unite our forces on the
basis of our own politics. We will not win over any serious forces,
let alone the millions needed for a party capable of taking power,
unless we can actually unite ourselves.
does not inexorably result from strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations. As
Kautsky and Lenin pointed out, there is nothing innate to the
struggle between employer and employee that produces a vision for a
higher form of society. We cannot content ourselves with mere
cooperation in solidarity work, important though that is.
will not come through stitch-ups by bureaucratic elites. Unity will
come through political struggle and the empowerment of the rank and
file within our movement - in the far left, in the trade unions -
against all bans, proscriptions and gagging orders, whether carried
out by a local SWP full-timer, a trade union bureaucrat or a Labour
cannot win that fight by walking away - and here I have to be
critical of Simon Hardy and his comrades, who simply resigned from
Workers Power and now present themselves as something ‘new’. That
approach simply speeds up the cycle of splits, whereas we need to
challenge the logic of splitting.
me finish by saying this. Though I recognise the huge problems that
we face today, I am at the same time extremely confident. I think
that when the penny drops, when comrades realise that revolutionary
unity is actually a desirable thing and can be won, then any
successful steps we take can be replicated extraordinarily quickly.