A Letter to LCR Comrades
Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party
To Daniel Bensaïd, Leon Cremieux, François Duval, and François Sabado
Much has happened since you wrote your letter to us in December 2002. Faced with the most gigantic international protest movement in world history, the United States and Britain – in defiance, not just of the anti-war movement, but of the opposition of most of the world’s ruling classes, headed by France, Germany, and Russia – have succeeded in conquering Iraq and are now subjecting the country to what amounts to a colonial occupation and threatening to attack neighbouring states such as Iran and Syria.
The stakes in global politics have become very high. Of course, the influence that small revolutionary organisations can have on these developments is small. It is not, however, completely negligible. For our part we have played a leading role in the Stop the War Coalition in Britain; we have also been heavily involved in the networks of anti-capitalist activists that developed the call for 15 February as an international day of protest against war on Iraq, first, at Florence, on a European level, and then, at Porto Alegre, on a global scale. For your part, we know that you have been heavily involved in the anti-war movement in France and in the struggles against the Chirac-Raffarin offensive against pensions. We also appreciate the significance of the role that your comrades in the Fourth International play in other countries: we have, for example, worked very well with activists in Bandiera Rossa, the Italian section of the Fourth International, in the European Social Forum process.
Facing the same way
Secondly, you very pertinently stress that ‘the gap between the social mobilizations ... and political recomposition remains immense’.2 This became very clear at the height of the political crisis in Britain this spring. The anti-war movement could bring two million people onto the streets of London on 15 February, but what was its political representation in the national arena! To a large extent, left-wing labour MPs whose opposition to the war – with a few very honourable exceptions, first and foremost among whom was George Galloway – crumbled once the Blair government had won the House of Commons vote on the war on 18 March (a victory that itself depended on the immense gullibility and capacity for self-deception of many of those who identify with ‘Old Labour’). For us this experience has confirmed the importance of bringing together a broad coalition of diverse forces that can project itself – as the Socialist Alliance has only succeeded to a limited extent in doing – a left wing alternative for the millions disillusioned by New Labour’s commitment to neoliberalism and war.3
You too stress the potentialities for realignment of the left:
‘The end of an entire historical and political cycle of the workers’ movement -the collapse of Stalinism and the social-liberal transformation of social democracy – puts on the order of the day a reorganization of the workers’ movement and gives all its relevance to the construction of a new political force, of a force that seeks to break with the capitalist system.’4
You say that such a force would be a Party with ‘incomplete strategic delimitations’: its programme would leave open ‘the forms and modalities of the political conquest of power’. You believe, however, that in France there are at present no ‘crystallized currents or groups of activists who are ready to engage in such a process’. Therefore, you will continue to build the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire while waiting for better conditions for ‘the construction of a new party, of a large party’ to develop.5 We are more optimistic about the short-term possibilities of launching a broader left coalition here in Britain. Certainly, given the potential forces involved, such a coalition would certainly have ‘incomplete strategic delimitations’ in the sense of leaving open the question of reform and revolution. But for us participation in such a coalition would not be a substitute for, but rather a means toward, building a mass revolutionary party. This is a question to which we return below.6
Thirdly, you believe that the FI and the International Socialist Tendency have an important contribution to make to the broader process of left realignment: ‘in the face of the new situation that has opened up in the past ten years, nothing in our view justifies a separate organizational existence between our two currents, above all if we wish to offer an example and open the way to larger realignments, between currents coming from different histories and cultures’.7 This is a very important statement. For all our numerous weaknesses, the FI and the IST are the only two revolutionary Marxist currents with any serious pretensions to operating on a global scale. A convergence between us would have an impact well beyond our ranks. We too are committed to exploring the possibilities for working together with revolutionaries from other traditions. We are against making historical disagreements – for example, over the class nature of Stalinism – an obstacle to this process of mutual exploration. And we are open to organizational fusions. This is shown by the decision of the SWP in Scotland to join the Scottish Socialist Party, by our invitation to the International Socialist Group (British section of the FI) to join the SWP, and by the application by our comrades in France, Socialisme par en bas, to join the LCR.
But – alas there is a ‘but’ – the ISG decided to turn down our invitation, and instead helped to form a regroupment, Socialist Resistance, that involves forces hostile to the SWP and in some cases to the project of a revolutionary party, in effect taking a step away from us; meanwhile, the Central Committee of the Ligue has deferred a decision on SPEB’s integration till September. It would be fruitless to discuss the details of these particular decisions. What would be helpful is to consider the broader political issues at stake. You say that there are ‘obstacles between us’ and that these ‘focus above all on the question of the relationship between party building and mass organizations’. In the first place, your claim that our practice fails to respect the autonomy of mass movements. Secondly, we have ‘a conception of the party that does not integrate the possibility of an organised pluralism’. Thirdly, there is a contradiction between our commitment to socialism from below and what you call ‘the functioning of a strongly verticalist party in its relationship with the unitary movements’.8 These criticisms provide a useful framework for a discussion in which we shall take the opportunity to address more concrete questions about the development of the broader movements in which our two organizations are involved.
Party and movement
The session on parties and movements al Florence was one of a series of attempts at a compromise. Among those participating were Fausto Bertinotti for the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy, Oliver Besancenot for the LCR, and Bernard Cassen for ATTAC. Chris Nineham was speaking on behalf of GR, but he is also a leading member of the SWP. In his speech he concentrated on the potential for building the movements and only in this context discussed the contribution that parties of the radical and revolutionary left can make to this process. What was he supposed to do: simply to duck this absolutely key question and say nothing about the necessity of revolutionary parties within the movement? This would have simply been to collude in the hypocrisy that has bedevilled this issue. It also would have amazed the non-SWP activists who played a crucial role in GR – none of whom made any complaint about Chris’s speech. He was simply honestly saying what he believed about a crucial debate. We should add that the only negative reactions we have received about his speech came from activists in France. The huge audience mainly of young Italians received all the ‘pro-party’ speakers very well. This session – the biggest meeting at the ESF – was one of the events that marked Florence as ‘red’. The open fusion of the anti-capitalist movement and radical left in Florence represented an important step forward – which is why, as you well know, the right wing of the movement, particularly in France, reacted so furiously to it.10
We return below to the question of political differentiation within the anti-capitalist movement. Let us say first that it is complete nonsense to accuse the SWP of trying to build movements ‘clearly aligned a priori with the general conceptions of the SWP’. GR is a united front that brings together members of the SWP with activists with other political perspectives – for example, progressive Muslims and comrades influenced by the disobbedienti. We are working hard to involve the left unions and NGOs: the recent GR conference, which was addressed by, among others, Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, marked an important step in this direction. But there is a rather more important example. SWP members (among them Chris Nineham, who has been the chief steward of the great anti-war marches) play a leading role in the Stop the War Coalition. Is this a movement ‘clearly aligned a priori with the general conceptions of the SWP’? If so, we are rather more important than we realized. The StWC organized the biggest demonstration in British history. It has held two large delegate conferences this year. Is all this just an SWP front? We should be so lucky.
In fact, of course, the StWC is a mass united front that has at its core revolutionary socialists, Labour MPs, left trade-union leaders, and progressive Muslims. Its political basis is simple: opposition to the ‘war on terrorism’ and to the associated attacks on civil liberties and asylum seekers. Far from imposing our ‘general conceptions’ the SWP has fought against the efforts of sectarian far left groups to commit the StWC to a full blooded anti-imperialist programme and also to exclude Muslim organizations. It is because of this approach that we have been able both to mobilize on such an enormous scale and not to capitulate or seek to liquidate the movement in response to the Anglo-American conquest of Iraq. The openness of the Coalition to Muslims -including bourgeois-led organizations such as the Muslim Association of Britain -meant that we have been able to build a very broad anti-war movement that has drawn in very large numbers of Asians and Arabs under the leadership of the predominantly and secular, radical left. If you won’t take our word for it, consider the assessment of the StWC by Terry Conway of the ISG, which, though by no means uncritical of us, notes that ‘overall the balance sheet of the role of the SWP as a lynchpin of the coalition has to be an overwhelmingly positive’, and stresses: ‘The revolutionary left in general, and the SWP in particular, have been at the core of the most successful campaign again the central project of imperialism ever.’11
The StWC is simply the latest – though also the most important – example of the SWP’s practice of building mass united fronts. Historically perhaps the most important previous example is that of the Anti-Nazi League, which – working very closely with Labour MPs and other activists – built a 60,000-strong Unity March against the headquarters of the British National Party in October 1993. Given the importance of such united fronts in the history of the SWP, what is the real source of our disagreements on this question with the LCR? Let us reply by turning to the famous question of the autonomy of the social movements. This has, in our opinion, nothing to do with differences in national political culture or the Charter of Amiens or whatever. If anything the British trade unions, though usually affiliated to the Labour Party, have been less politicized and more jealous of their autonomy than French or Italian unions where alignments between union federations and political parties have historically often been important.
Despite diverting us with this side issue a couple of times you rightly say ‘it must nevertheless be possibly to disengage the great principles of the independence of trade unions and social organizations in relations to parties, of respect for their plurality and their internal democracy’.12 We agree: moreover, we endorse these principles. This is not simply a formal stance. As you note, the IS tradition takes as its main reference point the idea of socialism from below, or, as Marx put it, of the self-emancipation of the working class. Revolution is for us a radically democratic process driven by self-activity and self-organization from below. Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Mass Strike has always been one of our key reference-points. Without trying to raise old ghosts, this is why we always resisted the idea that capitalism could have been overthrown by forces other than the democratically organized working class, whether these be the Red Army in Eastern Europe or rural guerrillas in China, Cuba, and Vietnam. This conception of socialism has informed our practice especially in the trade unions. Rather than rely on the election of left-wing union officials (though of course, we always stand alongside the left bureaucrats in their struggle with the right), we have sought to build rank-and-file organizations within the unions that would allow ordinary workers to fight independently of the trade-union bureaucracy. When struggles take place we argue for democratically elected strike committees rather than reliance on the officials.
So we are strongly committed to the democratic self-organization of trade unions and other social movements. Does that mean that we are for the autonomy of the movements? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we are in favour of what one might call the organizational autonomy of movements – that is, they should make their own decisions on the basis of democratic procedures that maximize the participation of the membership and officials, delegates, committees, etc., should be held democratically accountable to the members. No, in the sense that we do not believe that trade unions and the like can be politically and ideologically autonomous. If they were, this would mean that movements could formulate their perspectives unaffected by the wider currents in society, This is the aspiration sometimes expressed by calling the new movements against capitalist globalization ‘non-ideological’. But this an illusion: there is, indeed, nothing more ideological than the belief that one is ‘beyond’ ideology. Capitalist society is a field of antagonistic forces whose conflict generates different perspectives – what Gramsci called ‘conceptions of the world’. Any movement, however limited its aspirations, implicitly defines itself with respect to these forces and perspectives. The idea that a movement can effectively be autonomous of the struggle between social classes, political forces, and ideologies is simply a Utopian dream.
If this is true – and we can’t imagine that as revolutionary Marxists you would deny it – then it has concrete political implications. It means that the contemporary movements against capitalist globalization aren’t simply networks through which resistance can be discussed and organized. They are also fields of struggle between rival ideologies and strategies. This is precisely what we see happening around us. There are a number of different politico-ideological poles within the movement. One is represented by the disobbedienti and theoretically canonized in the writings of Negri, Hardt, and Holloway: it is verbally very radical, but – because it does not recognize the central role of the working class as the agency of social transformation – it can slide from ultra-left to gesture politics to reformist practices, positions that both leave in place the dominance of the workers’ movement by social democracy, or worse – the experience of Argentina is a case in point. But there also is a reformist wing within the anti-capitalist movement. You baulk at identifying this with the leadership of ATTAC France, apparently because ‘frankly moderate and reformist currents, and of radical and revolutionary currents’ co-exist within ATTAC.13
Perhaps this was an arguable case back last December, but it is no longer tenable now. Of course ATTAC is a politically heterogeneous movement. Nevertheless, the dominant forces within it are a right-wing axis, joining Bernard Cassen and his allies with elements associated with the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Confederation Générale du Travail (CGT), for example, the ATTAC president Jacques Nikonoff. These forces have done their utmost bureaucratically to control the preparations for the next ESF at Paris-St Denis in November. Linked up via the PCF’s intellectual front Espaces Marx and the European network Transform to the rump of the old Communist Parties, the right have made plain their intention to ensure that nothing like Florence happens again, and that the radical left is marginalized in Paris-St Denis. As to the politics of this axis, it is well expressed in Cassen’s recent paper where he muses: ‘how, in France, to support Chirac abroad while fighting Raffarin at home?’ He goes on to wonder whether or not ATTAC should support the proposals for European defence put forward by France, Germany, and Belgium. ‘Confronted with an American strategy based on the discretionary use of force’, Cassen argues, ‘the movement for another world can’t practise an ostrich-like policy with regard to defence.’14 In other words, the anti-capitalist movement should be backing European imperialism as a counterweight to US imperialism. This amounts to the effective ceding of political leadership in the struggle against the Bush war-drive to Chirac-Raffarin.
In this situation, where the movement is demonstrably polarizing politically, the radical -and certainly the revolutionary – left should be organizing as well. To say this is not to argue for splitting the movement or (what would amount to the same thing) trying to turn it into a far-left front. Our practice in the united fronts we are involved in here in Britain shows how alien either of these alternatives is to us. But what organizations such as the LCR and the SWP should be doing is openly and robustly challenging the right and putting forward their own alternative strategy for the movement.
If we don’t do this then two things will happen. First, the right will start setting the agenda of the movement in a way that they were unable to in the lead-up to Florence. As the prospect of war on Iraq came to predominate last year, activists from Italy and Britain led an argument – against, it has to be said, bitter opposition from ATTAC France – for making the war central at Florence. The fruits were the one million strong demonstration on 9 November and the much greater global day of protest on 15 February. But such past successes will not be repeated automatically in the future, without determined intervention by the radical left. The experience of the past two years – from Genoa to Florence to Evian – shows that this intervention takes place in the favourable terrain provided by the continuing radicalization of the movement at the base, which has forced the right onto the defensive. Secondly, precisely because of this radicalization, the political vacuum that right wing dominance of the movement would create would drive tens of thousands of youngsters all over Europe into the arms of the disobbedienti. All Daniel’s fine theoretical critiques of Hardt-Negri and Holloway will lack real force unless we can show in practice that revolutionary Marxists offer a radical alternative to both Cassen-Nikonoff and the autonomists.
The revolutionary party today
But, of course, implantation is not enough. You yourselves underline the gap between the mass mobilizations and their political expressions. Political organization is necessary. The classical case for the revolutionary party is that it generalizes the experiences of particular struggles, on the basis of this generalization formulates a programme and strategy for taking the movement forward, and intervenes in an organized manner to translate these broad conceptions into reality. When things go well – and they have gone better for us in the anti-war movement than anything has for many years – a mutually enriching process takes place in which revolutionaries learn from the movement but also help to strengthen it and give it direction.
What are your objections to the SWP’s approach to party-building? You warn that ‘we must make ourselves distinguish (which isn’t always easy) the important from the secondary, strategic questions from tactical ones, under the pain of remaining trapped in a sectarian logic of fragmentation to infinity on the basis of divergences that, with a few years (even a few months) of reflection, appear of a very relative importance’. You give as examples the 1971 split in the Ligue that led to the formation of the OCT-Révolution and the more recent break between the American ISO and the IST. This logic is, you argue, a consequence of ‘the identification of the construction of a tendency or a faction with that of the party’. The alternative to this destructive approach is a pluralistic conception of the party which institutionalises tendency rights and, if necessary (though you emphasize this is not the most desirable situation), ‘a regime of permanent tendencies’.15
Let us say first that if you are claiming that the ‘sectarian logic of fragmentation to infinity’ is a consequence of the SWP’s method of party-building, then you must provide evidence to support this proposition. The last, and much the most serious split in the history of the SWP took place in 1975. The American ISO’s exclusion from the IS Tendency was far and away the most significant split that our international current has experienced. You say that the differences over Seattle and the anti-capitalist movement weren’t ‘enough to precipitate such a brutal and precipitate break’.16 We agree completely: please communicate your views to the leadership of the ISO (US) and their Greek allies in DEA (the Internationalist Workers Left). It was the ISO Steering Committee that in early 2001 translated the international disagreements over political perspectives into an organizational break by first expelling ISO members who agreed with the rest of the IS Tendency and then publicly supporting the breakaway by DEA from our Greek sister organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SEK): the latter was a particularly discreditable affair since the ISO’s Greek allies resigned en masse from SEK without putting their differences to debate at the party conference. The IST’s decision subsequently to exclude the ISO (US) was a defensive measure to prevent this ‘sectarian logic of fragmentation’ from spreading more widely through the Tendency – something that, fortunately, we have been largely able to achieve.17
Despite this, you accuse us of confusing ‘party’ and ‘faction’. This is a charge that has more meaning in the distinctive kind of political discourse that the FI has developed since the 1970s than it has on the left more generally. We take you to mean that, as a matter of principle, any party of the left, whether revolutionary or reformist, should be able to contain within it distinct, ideologically coherent, and persisting currents. For us, however, the political nature of the party makes an enormous difference here. In a broad workers’ party with a non-revolutionary programme – as the PT is and the SSP aspires to be – it is indeed essential to insist on the party’s ability to accommodate different currents and therefore to defend the rights of tendencies. The more a party claims to reflect the workers’ movement in all its diversity, the more important it is that it allows different socialist groupings to organize and express their views within it.
But a revolutionary party does not aim to represent the working class in its entirely. Rather, it seeks to organise those who are more or less fully committed to a revolutionary socialist programme in order to intervene in the struggles and movements of the day and draw wider layers of the working class and other oppressed sections of society towards that programme. Its function is not representative but interventionist.18 Daniel Bensaïd puts it very well when he writes that, for Lenin, the party ‘becomes a strategic operator, a sort of gearbox and points-man of the class struggle’ grappling with a history that is ‘a broken time, full of knots and wounds pregnant with events’.19 Performing this function requires a relatively high degree of ideological coherence. Without the cohesion provided by a shared understanding of the world, a revolutionary organization may, at what Lenin called ‘sharp turns in history’, find itself paralysed by internal disagreements and factional manoeuvres.
It is important to understand that, to be effective, ideological cohesion cannot be administratively imposed. For a revolutionary party rooted in the Marxist tradition, how to continue that tradition is always a matter of choice. History does not offer itself up unambiguously, commanding one self-evident interpretation. Bringing Marxism to bear on current circumstances involves both a selection from the vast resources of that tradition – a decision about which of its aspects are most relevant to the present – and a development of the tradition that means going beyond it in a way that can always be contested. Debate and discussion are inherent in this process, which is itself inseparable from the assessment of the concrete experiences of intervening in struggles that the organization has undergone. It is therefore always possible – particularly when the party is confronted with a break in the situation, one of Daniel’s ‘leaps’ – that the debate will be developed into a factional polarization. The history of the SWP has been punctuated with such crises, as – on, of course, a much grander scale – was that of the Bolsheviks.
Daniel uses a very similar conception of the interaction between party and situation to support the case you have been arguing:
‘If politics is a matter of choice and decision, it implies an organized plurality. This is a matter of principles of organization. As for the system of organization, this may vary according to concrete circumstances on the condition that it does not lose the guiding thread of principle in the labyrinth of opportunities. Then even the notorious discipline in action seems less sacrosanct that the golden myth of Leninism would have it. We know how Zinoviev and Kamenev were guilty of indiscipline by publicly opposing the insurrection, but they were not permanently removed from their responsibilities. Lenin himself, in extreme circumstances, did not hesitate to demand a personal right to disobey the party. Thus he considered resigning his responsibilities in order to resume "freedom to agitate" in the rank and file of the party. At the critical moment of decision, he wrote bluntly to the central committee, "I have gone where you did not want me to go (to Smolny). Goodbye".’21
Daniel is absolutely right to say that any revolutionary party worth the name will contain at any given time a plurality of different view. Homogeneity is a relative concept. A revolutionary organisation may have a high degree of ideological cohesion relative to other currents on the left, but – partly for the reasons given above, partly as a result of the ways in which the broader pressures of the social context are filtered into the organization, and partly because individuals have different class positions, characters, histories, and perspectives – there are always different nuances in how to approach specific problems. As we have already said, particularly at ‘turning points in history’, hitherto microscopic differences in emphasis may develop into polarized confrontations. When that happens, there is nothing to be done but to argue out the disagreements openly inside the party, if necessary through the vehicle of formal or informal factional groupings. Recognizing that revolutionary organizations are, to this extent, pluralistic does, however, not require us permanently to institutionalize the differences that inevitably develop within them.
Daniel refers to the Bolshevik Party’s fractious internal history, but one of the striking things about this history is how it involved shifting and cross-cutting alliances. Lenin and Trotsky, for example, were united in support of the October 1917 insurrection (though they disagreed significantly over precise tactics), in conflict over whether to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and later over invading Poland in the summer of 1920, bitterly at loggerheads over the trade union question in the lead-up to the 10th Congress in March 1921, but simultaneously in agreement over NEP and the need to fight the ultra-leftism displayed in the March Action. The party-faction distinction fails to capture the subtle interplay of different contexts and considerations at work in these convergences and divergences – let alone the much more complex picture that arises when we take into account the shifting positions of other Bolshevik leaders such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and Stalin and the broader currents inside the party.
So revolutionary organizations necessarily involve plurality; moreover, democratic debate is the indispensable mechanism through which perspectives and circumstances are calibrated and crises are overcome. In our view, however, the kind of principled distinction that you draw between party and faction and the right of members to form permanent tendencies that you infer from this distinction are an obstacle to internal discussion playing this role. If comrades identify themselves as members of factions that have a continuous identity they are likely to approach concrete issues and debates through the prism of the faction’s general perspective. Issues are unlikely to be discussed on their merits but approached rather from the point of view of their impact on the internal balance of factional forces. Daniel’s ‘organized plurality’ then risks degenerating into something like the pluralism that American political scientists claim for their society – pragmatic competition and bargaining between interest groups. Indeed a cynic might say that the metaphysics of party and faction was developed by the FI in the 1970s to legitimize precisely such a factional stand-off between the different currents that the USec either embraced or sought draw in – the European ‘majority’, the American SWP, the Morenoites, and the Lambertists (Daniel himself wittily describes the 11th Congress of the FI in 1979, intended to witness the culmination, but in fact marking the collapse of this policy, as ‘consecrating a marriage of convenience lacking in true amorous passion’21).
You imply that in rejecting permanent tendencies we are committed to a bureaucratically imposed cohesion that necessarily leads to splits: ‘if crystallized divergences express a rnalaise or a crisis, organizational separation is no more always the best way of overcoming them by re-establishing party "homogeneity".’22 In our experience, the best way of addressing ‘crystallized divergences’ is through political debate. We have been able to do so with remarkably few splits in our history. Though you accuse us of having a ‘verticalist’ method of organizing, the number of times that individuals have been expelled from the SWP over the past 25 years because of political disagreements as opposed to personal misconduct has been extremely small.23 What you refer to as our ‘verticalism’ is better described as our capacity to intervene in a highly disciplined and concerted way. But the basis of this discipline is not bureaucratically imposed homogeneity but the mutual confidence that comes from a shared political understanding rooted in the Marxist tradition sustained by a tradition of open debate and by the experience of working together within the framework of the same organization.
The differences in our conceptions of party organization are, of course, not simply academic matters. They have practical consequences. One great advantage of the development of an international anti-capitalist movement is that we now operate, in part, on a common terrain where we can (and do) co-operate, and also observe each other’s practice. This is a great step forward, but it can bring significant divergences into the spotlight. Thus you have been vocally critical of how we behaved in Florence. Equally, we have problems with how you operate in the movement. Our criticisms are based on how LCR comrades operate in the ESF process. This may not be representative of your practice within the unions, for example, about which know we much less – though we are eager to learn more.
Nevertheless, we have been struck by the absence of anything amounting to a coherent LCR intervention in the ESF process. In a series of tough right-left confrontations within the European anti-capitalist networks, a leading LCR member has been one of the main individuals fronting the positions taken by ATTAC France – as we have already said, the leadership of the right inside the anti-globalization movement in Europe. Other well-known LCR comrades have either pursued their own individual projects or, when they have intervened in the debates between right and left, have done so in a relatively equivocal way. To begin with we wondered whether this disarray was merely accidental or a product of disorganization. After all, we don’t always get our act together effectively. But it seems to be a pattern.
Moreover, we were struck by the fact that the LCR Central Committee, when it resolved to defer a decision on SPEB’s integration, reaffirmed, as a ‘position of principle’: ‘the choice of the LCR to refuse to impose "party discipline" on its militants within mass organizations (trade unions, associations) must be clearly understood as a will to respect the autonomy of the social movements, according to their own frameworks and their own rhythms of elaboration and decision’.24 This seems to us a bizarre position. Of course, if by ‘party discipline’ you mean subjecting members to the will of the organisation by instructions and the threat of expulsion, then resort to such mechanical procedures is, at best, an admission of failure – though not something that can therefore be ruled out a priori: trade-union activity, for example, is full of temptations that occasionally can only be dealt with by disciplinary measures. But for us much more important is political discussion involving the leadership and the comrades directly concerned to hammer out what the party should be pushing for in the union or movement in question. The alternative is a dispersion of forces, and at worst, a situation in which members of the same party are openly pressing for divergent positions.
The problem with the latter situation isn’t just that it makes revolutionary Marxists look silly and diminishes our effectiveness. Much more serious is the danger that, the ineffectual behaviour of revolutionaries can weaken the left and strengthen the right. The right are quite happy to pay lip service to ‘the autonomy of the social movements’ while ruthlessly and unscrupulously fighting for their own positions. This is very clearly what the right wing inside ATTAC are doing at the present time. The tragedy is that the left can, by binding itself to respecting a unity that the right cynically uses for its own purposes, end up doing the right’s dirty work. There is a very clear danger of this happening to some comrades, among them LCR members, in ATTAC. As we have already said, to counter the right, the left has to organize. Revolutionaries – because of the consistency and radicality of their politics – should be playing a central role in this process. It is indispensable to strengthening the movement. To perform this function, revolutionary Marxists should be organizing themselves to intervene effectively. Isn’t that why we are in a revolutionary organization in the first place?
Reform and revolution
‘[u]nlike past movements for emancipation, the movement for another globalization doesn’t seek power, it situates itself in the sphere of counterpowers. It has therefore been able to avoid a number of strategic debates, such as that on ‘reform and revolution’, that have profoundly divided movements for emancipation in the past. Hence the problem posed by the presence of parties, even leaving aside the orientations they can take, and the difficulty of thinking how to relate with them, and more generally with the political sphere, apart from adopting a stand of distrust. This distrust is all the more important since the movement for another world is obliged to rely on political parties with which it disagrees to implement its proposals.’25
This passage is an interesting example of how autonomist rhetoric can validate reformist politics. The anti-capitalist movement belongs to ‘the sphere of counterpowers’ and regards politics with disdain. The practical consequence is that, while political parties – particularly those of the plural left, presumably – are formally excluded from the Social Forums, we have no alternative but to rely on them when it comes to getting our reforms passed into law. This is a formula for transforming the movement into a kind of loyal opposition to, a pressure group on the parties of social-liberalism.
Resisting this reformist logic requires clarity about what is involved in adopting a revolutionary perspective. Indeed, you pose this question: ‘What does it mean to be a revolutionary at the threshold of the 21st century?’ Your answer is somewhat oblique, distinguishing ‘three current meanings of the world "revolution"’. First, there is ‘a very ancient hope for liberation and repletion’. Secondly, and you suggest, ‘most clearly relevant’ today, there is the notion of an ‘opposition between two antagonistic social logics’. Thirdly, there is revolution in the ‘strategic sense’, expressing ‘a series of experiences and themes ... strategy and tactics, war of position and war of movement, general strike and insurrection, dual power, etc.’ These themes played a major role in the history of the workers’ movement in the Short Twentieth Century (1914-91), but became ‘obscured’, as the ‘strategic debate ... sunk to degree zero (in Europe)’ from the end of the 1970s onwards.26
These clarifications are useful, but, it seems to us, incomplete. The greatest difficulty concerns the connection between the second and third means of ‘revolution’. We agree that the notion of a systemic transformation – the replacement, as you put it, of one social logic by another of an economy driven by competitive accumulation by one based on the democratic determination of individual and collective needs – remains of fundamental political importance today. But this conception of revolution leaves quite unspecified the political forms it might take. Kautsky and left social democrats more generally championed ‘social revolution’ – the economic expropriation of the bourgeoisie – but argued that it could come within the framework of parliamentary democracy. The decisive strategic specification that Lenin gave to the concept of revolution lay in the proposition that the overthrow of capital would require the forcible dismantling of the repressive apparatuses of state power by the workers and oppressed self-organized through some version of council democracy. You say that ‘the content of the [strategic] concept is obscured, certainly because of the defeats we have suffered, but also thanks to modifications in the strategic coordinates of which, at the beginning of a new cycle of experiences, we have hardly begun to take the measure’.27
It is true that, participating in the construction of a new movement, there is an enormous amount that remains open and that can only be determined in the course of future struggles. All the same, some ‘strategic coordinates’ seem to us unchanged. Lenin’s proposition seems to us one of them. Indeed, the greater global integration of capital over the past 25 years surely increases the probability that any movement of reform will face the most intense resistance from the bourgeoisie – resistance that can only be overcome by organized mass mobilizations that, among other things, seek to break the state’s monopoly of the means of coercion. Recognition of this truth is essential to any effective response to the autonomists, who seek to legitimize their own non-strategy precisely by evading the question of political power. Of course, there is plenty of scope for discussion about the forms in which such a confrontation with the capitalist state could unfold – the working class of today is very different from the one that drove the lust upturn of struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, let alone the proletariat at the heart of the great revolutionary experiences of the early 20th century – though, as you imply, more than anything else we need new experiences to give our speculations concrete shape. Nevertheless, what you call the ‘regulative idea’ of revolution can only be given coherence if it incorporates the key strategic lessons for which we remain in Lenin’s and Trotsky’s debt.
You say that ‘the revolutionary perspective’ serves as ‘a guiding thread ... that allows us ... to separate out necessary and acceptable compromises from unacceptable betrayals, to distinguish what takes us closer to the final goal from what draws us further away from it’.28 In other words, revolutionary socialism doesn’t just commit us to some long-term abstract ideal – it has concrete political implications in the present. Two examples. First, there is a connection between Cassen’s reformism and his support for European militarism. If you believe that systemic transformation is impossible and that the best we can hope for is some more regulated version of capitalism, then you are likely to be sceptical about mass mobilization as an answer to the military might of American imperialism. Given this perspective, it is entirely natural to seek a counterweight to the US within the existing system – and the obvious candidate for this role is the European Union. Only a revolutionary perspective that targets the entire imperialist system, not simply the most powerful actor in that system, provides a principled basis for resisting this logic.
The second illustration is provided by the Lula presidency in Brazil. This is a huge subject in its own right that requires detailed analysis and discussion. Plainly what is happening in Brazil is an enormously important experience for the workers’ movement and the left internationally. A party that is the product of some of the most important social movements of the past generation now holds office in one of the powerful states in the South. And yet – under the pre-emptive pressure of the financial markets (preventive war takes more than one form) long before the presidential elections last October – the Lula team dumped the PT’s programme and embraced the neo-liberal agenda. The Financial Times reported at the end of Lula’s first hundred days in the presidency:
‘Only about six months ago, it was generally feared that Brazil ... was drifting inexorably on to the rocks of debt default and financial collapse. Almost the opposite has occurred: Brazil has come into fashion on Wall Street. Traders and investors who shunned it last year are now scrambling to buy Brazilian bonds and equities ...
‘Why has this happened? A rapid change in the politics of the governing Workers’ party (PT) is one of the biggest reasons. Having vote in December 2001 for a "rupture" with the "neo-liberal" economic model introduced by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the party has rowed back towards the centre of the political spectrum with astonishing speed ... In some areas the government has been even more austere than its predecessor, raising the target for the primary fiscal surplus – before debt repayments – from 3.75 percent to 4.25 percent of gross domestic product. Mr Henrique Meirelles, formerly of Bank Boston of the US, has raised interest rates in order to combat inflationary pressures unleashed by last year’s devaluation of the Real. Mr Lula da Silva has embraced much of Mr Cardoso’s reform agenda and is now accelerating planned reform of the tax and pension system.’29
In the light of this evolution, we have no doubt that it was a mistake for a member of Democracia Socialista (DS), the Brazilian section of the Fourth International, Miguel Rossetto, to accept the portfolio of Agrarian Development in Lula’s government. We have great respect for the DS comrades that we have encountered at Porto Alegre: undoubtedly the DS is a serious organization of revolutionary militants. We are not interested in a politics of sectarian denunciation or in metaphysical arguments over whether or not the Brazilian government is a popular front. We understand that it is not a simple task to relate to the broad consciousness that Lula’s victory was that of the masses while resisting his policies. All the same, for a revolutionary to take office in a government committed to a neo-liberal programme is something that ‘draws us away’ from ‘the final goal’. This is particularly so given the government’s attacks on pensions and the disciplinary action taken or threatened against parliamentarians belonging to far-left tendencies within the PT who are standing up for the party’s December 2001 programme – for example, Luciana Genro of the Movement of the Socialist Left (MES) and Heloisa Helena of the DS itself. We were shocked to learn that the DS deputies voted for Luciana’s suspension from the PT parliamentary group.30 The task of revolutionaries, in Brazil and elsewhere, should be to defend the PT left from the leadership’s attacks and to help them, together with movements such as the MST, to build support for a real break with neo-liberalism.
This examples illustrate how being a revolutionary Marxist today is not a matter of commitment to some abstract dogma, but of real engagement with the movements that are developing around us. As we have said before, we do not claim exclusive property of the classical Marxist tradition. We seek dialogue and co-operation with revolutionaries from other currents who are also seeking to continue this tradition while participating in the movement of movements. We should perhaps emphasize that we do not regard this process as one of ‘Trotskyist regroupment’ – something that has been often tried in the past but that usually (as the example we gave earlier illustrates) leads to rapid divorces rather than real fusions. We do not foreclose the possibility of drawing closer to some of those who come from a Stalinist background. We have worked well with comrades from the Communist Party of Britain in the antiwar movement. On the international front, we have had very productive contacts with the leadership of the PRC in Italy. Elements stemming from the Marxist-Leninist organizations in the South may prove to be valuable partners. The pursuit of dialogue with such a wide range of forces does not imply an unprincipled avoidance of arguments. It is plain that even between two organizations with as much in common as the LCR and the SWP there are important points of divergence. But our debates must develop in the context of an open-minded exploration of the bases for deeper collaboration.
Here our two organizations have an especial responsibility. For what it is worth, we are the two leading revolutionary Marxist organizations in Europe. We also have a relatively high international profile, in part because of the role we play in our respective currents. We are geographically close and have a growing experience – whatever tensions and disagreements this may generate – of working together practically. We agree completely with Ollivier when he said at the recent FI World Congress: ‘The unity of revolutionaries is only meaningful when it is turned towards the overall tasks of mobilization and political reorganization of the social movement.’31 We have already suggested that the LCR and the SWP should initiate an international conference of the radical left, possibly within the framework of one of the next two World Social Forums – in Bombay in January 2004 or back in Porto Alegre in 2005. In the short term, it is imperative that we should work together to ensure that there is as strong as possible a radical-left presence at the European Social Forum in Paris-St Denis in November. We hope that you will respond positively to these suggestions. We will be judged harshly if we fail to fulfil at least some of the expectations that our dialogue has already begun to raise.
With best wishes,
for the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party
1. D. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, IST Discussion Bulletin, no.2, January 2003, p.13.
3. J. Rees, ‘The Conquest of Iraq’, Socialist Review, May 2003.
4. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.16.
6. See A. Callinicos, ‘Regroupment, Realignment and the Revolutionary Left’, IST Discussion Bulletin, no.1, July 2002, and ‘Regroupment and the Socialist Left’, ibid., no.2, January 2003, and J. Rees, ‘The Broad Party, The Revolutionary Party and the United Front’, International Socialism, 2.97 (2002).
7. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.18.
8. Ibid., pp.18, 19. See also L. Aguirre, ‘Mouvement altermondialisation: Retour sur Florence’, Rouge, 19 December 2002, and the exchange between Alex Callinicos and Leonce Aguirre and François Duval, ‘Mouvement social et partis politiques’, ibid., 6 February 2003.
9. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, pp.18, 15.
10. See notably L. Caramel, ‘Forum de Florence: Offensive de la gauche radicale’, Le Monde, 16 November 2002
11. T. Conway, ‘We are the Majority: Lessons of the Anti-War Movement’, International Viewpoint, 349, May 2003.
12. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.18.
13. Ibid., p.19 n.5.
14. B. Cassen, ‘Trois questions pour ATTAC’ www.attac.org.
15. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.18.
17. For more background, see A. Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (London, 2001).
18. See C. Harman, ‘Party and Class’, in T. Cliff et al., Party and Class (London, 1997).
19. D. Bensaïd, ‘Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!’, International Socialism, 2.95 (2002), p.76.
20. Ibid., p.79.
21. D. Bensaïd, Les Trotskysmes (Paris, 2002), p.108.
22. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.18.
23. There were some large scale expulsions in the mid-1970s that reflected serious political divergences. Whether this was the best way of dealing with these disagreements is undeniably open to discussion, but it is important to see that these cases are very much the exception in a history that now stretches over more than fifty years.
24. ‘Resolution adopté par le Comité Central de la LCR’, 19 January 2003.
25. P. Khalfa, ‘La Guerre en Iraq, et après?’, Le Grain de sable, no.422, 9 May 2003; there is a (rather rough) English translation in Sand in the Wheels, 28 May 2003; www.attac.org.
26. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.17.
28. Bensaïd et al., ‘A Letter from LCR Comrades’, p.17.
29. R. Lapper and R. Collitt, ‘Lula’s 100 Days: Can Hunger Plans and Consensual Politics Keep the Honeymoon Going?’, Financial Times, 8 April 2003.
30. See the statement by Luciana Genro elsewhere in this Bulletin.
31. F. Ollivier, ‘Introductory Report on the World Political Situation’, 15th World Congress of the Fourth International, International Viewpoint, 349, May 2003.