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Recomposition and the British Left

Dave Osler

ALMOST one year ago I wrote an article for issue No.3 of What Next?, entitled "Britain’s Party of Recomposition: Why Trotskyists Should Join Socialist Labour". It is now time to denounce myself with 20/20 hindsight.

The Socialist Labour Party (SLP), formally in existence only since May 1996, has even in its short lifespan blown the once real chances it enjoyed of acting as a focus of regroupment for the revolutionary – and serious reformist – left in Britain. It is now dead for recomposition. And yet, despite the clear failure of the central perspective to reach fruition, many of the other arguments retain their validity. My article was essentially a polemic against Bob Pitt’s "The Socialist Labour Party: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong" in What Next? No.1, which made the case for continued political work by Trotskyists in New Labour. That case diminishes by the day. Blair remains determined to recast the British political system by building a new hegemonic pro-European bloc, incorporating the bulk of the existing Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and perhaps even the Europhiles within the Conservative party. Sections of the Labour left clearly want no part of this, but remain too cowardly to countenance a breakaway, at least for the time being. Their hand may ultimately be forced by continued marginalisation or possibly even mass expulsion.

Objectively, the political space for a party of recomposition has been there for some time and continues to grow. The challenge is now not to build the SLP, but to build the party that the SLP had the potential to become. Concretely, this means a multi-tendency socialist organisation, with an organised current in sympathy with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and other Trotskyist groupings. While it will be of limited size in the first instance – perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 strong – it will have a strategic orientation towards the creation of a mass workers’ party. What it will most emphatically not be is a revolutionary regroupment on an agreed programmatic basis.

Let us stop to ask ourselves why in sixty years of Trotskyist work in Britain, during which time tens and even hundreds of thousands of capable individuals have passed through our ranks, we have not been able to build a united organisation with real implantation in the class. Our agitation, where correctly pitched, corresponds with people’s real experiences and therefore should have proven capable of winning significant sympathy among a relatively large layer of class-conscious workers, notwithstanding the ideological stranglehold of the bourgeoisie. Yet – with the partial exception of one or two white collar unions – we have failed to achieve this.

The revolutionary left needs to transform its appeal as thoroughly as the Blairites have transformed the appeal of Britain’s social democracy. We need a New Socialism. There is a massive theoretical backlog to be tackled in updating the basic ideas of our tradition in the light of the extraordinary changes in capitalism since the brilliant work of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. Our entire project is in urgent need of reassessment in the wake of the collapse of the degenerate workers’ states. Again with partial exceptions in a handful of countries, in the eyes of the masses Marxism equals economic stagnation plus totalitarian repression, not human liberation. We need to stress all that is exciting and vibrant in the ideas of socialism from below and the self-emancipation of the working class. We need to admit openly that Marxism needs to learn from feminism, green politics and even anarchist and libertarian critiques, particularly regarding our forms of organisation.

The transition to communism must come through socialist democracy, with explicit guarantees of a multi-party system, freedom of religion, sexual freedom, women’s rights and reversing the environmental damage wrought by capitalism. Even our symbolism of the revolutionary left must be reconsidered. The hammer-and-sickle, for example, is regarded by the vast majority of workers as a badge of repression. In all of this the question of internal party regime emerges as crucial, as those of us who took part in the SLP are only too aware. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.

Democratic centralism is by definition ruled out in a party of recomposition. Indeed, if democratic centralism means anything other than mutual agreement to be bound by majority decisions, there are few pressing reasons for it be the organisational basis of the Trotskyist currents within such a party. The handful of organisations that currently publish their internal debates in their public press seem none the worse for it.

The alternative course is a comfortable retreat into what has rightly been dubbed "Kitsch Trotskyism" and stirring proclamations on the need to re-elaborate a Bolshevik-Leninist programme based on the Transitional Programme and the first four Congresses of the Communist International. Blasphemous as it sometimes seems to say it, Lenin and the Bolsheviks made mistakes. Their praxis was not perfect. While the documents listed were brilliantly perspicacious in many respects, in others they were quite simply wrong, as history conclusively proves. It is simply ludicrous to elevate them from necessarily conjunctural perspectives of the 1920s and ’30s to a catechism of revolutionary loyalty. They can hardly be expected to guide us tactically or strategically in dealing with such phenomena as the changing nature of social democracy, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its knock-on effects on the Communist Parties worldwide, the forms taken by imperialism in the post-colonial period, or the implications for the theory of permanent revolution following the advent of capitalist development and bourgeois democracy in the former colonies and semi-colonies. Not only do we not have the answers to such questions, but the bulk of the movement is not even asking such questions to begin with.

Let us start with perhaps the most immediate tactical question facing British socialists. Blair’s drive to transform the Labour Party from a bourgeois workers’ party into an outright bourgeois party has dramatically accelerated, especially since the general election last May. Labour’s conference carried the Partnership in Power changes in internal structures almost without demur, emasculating the constituencies further and permanently closing off the option of deploying Bennite tactics based on a fightback within the rulebook. The government has established a joint cabinet committee on constitutional reform with the Liberal Democrats, while Blair’s speeches openly rue this century’s so-called division between the radicals, which is a coded attack on the birth of the Labour Party itself. Even the Formula One tobacco sponsorship row has been exploited to speed up moves to state funding of political parties, increasing the likelihood of a formal severance of the union link.

Against these developments, some comrades counterpoise the purely ephemeral increased left vote in the National Executive Committee elections. These were driven as much by personalities as politics. Even the other side of a general election, there remains no serious opposition to the Blair project, and no evidence to suggest that Marxists in the SLP would have been better rewarded by putting their efforts into the Labour Party over the last two years.

The realignment implicit in the Blair project goes wider than I envisaged a year ago. A formalised pro-EC faction around Kenneth Clarke has now emerged within the Conservative Party, with tacit encouragement from the New Labour leadership. If the Tories do now split, Mainstream MPs could act as either a coalition partner for Blair-led forces, or even an integral part of a new Blairite party.

How can the far left best intervene in this situation? My earlier conclusion was that we could rapidly build the SLP into a party of 5,000-10,000 members, thereby acquiring the critical mass necessary to act as a pole of attraction to Labour leftists who would find the next stage of the Blair offensive politically unpalatable. Failure was not preordained. But things have panned out rather differently. Lack of democracy has translated into lack of morale and therefore lack of growth. The SLP at best numbers a few hundred activists, and even the claimed membership in the low thousands is inflated by probably non-existent union affiliations. It is now an unattractive alternative for the Labour left, which is hardly likely to swap undemocratic internal life in a party of government for undemocratic internal life in an Arthur Scargill fan club. The SLP’s failure to call for a Labour vote where socialist candidates were not standing is therefore underlined as a mistake.

The SLP is marred by the most monstrous internal regime, with even the signing of internally circulated calls for glasnost serving as cause for instant exclusion from the party, without so much as the benefit of a show trial. To describe this as "Stalinism", however, would give rise to terminological confusion. The party regime in a number of ostensibly Trotskyist organisations has been no less authoritarian.

Trotskyists have long used the label "Stalinism" far too loosely, to describe the politics of various national Communist Parties. Many of these parties have been highly critical of Stalin for decades now. The forces involved, especially where not irredeemably wedded to the trade union bureaucracy, are a potentially valuable part of any recomposition project. Trotskyists and official Communists are now working together, with varying degrees of success, in formations ranging from the Scottish Socialist Alliance to Rifondazione Comunista. There is no case of British exceptionalism here.

Despite the failure of the SLP, the question of recomposition is still posed. The alternatives include further fragmentation, decline and irrelevance for the far left, or a qualitative explosion in growth for one or more of the existing organisations. The former sadly cannot be excluded. Never underestimate the ability of the British left to shoot itself in the foot. The latter might be a possibility on the basis of student radicalisation or an upturn in the class struggle.

But to return to the present, recent months have seen the emergence of small groups with a strategic orientation to a multi-tendency socialist party, whether or not they call it a party of recomposition. These include splits from the Socialist Party/Militant and Socialist Outlook, and may possibly be joined shortly by one or more groups from the SLP. Hopefully such groupings will rapidly move to practice what they preach, and form a multi-tendency socialist current. However, there are clearly a number of obstacles to overcome, not least personality differences.

Another likely consequence of the unravelling of the SLP could be the revitalisation of the Socialist Alliance movement south of the border and the reaction of the Socialist Party to such a development. It would be the crudest determinism to suggest that a British party of recomposition is in some sense inevitable or unavoidable. But it remains possible, perhaps likely, and healthy from the standpoint of Marxism informed by praxis.