New parties, reformism and the role of the CWI
Here we publish a report of the commission which took place at the CWI Summer School 2017 on New Left Parties and reformism. More reports to come.
This commission discussed developments of new left formations and parties across the world, their characteristics as well as implications for the tactics of different sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). The importance of analysing the context of these developments was stressed in the opening of the discussion; this context is defined by the ongoing global economic crisis which was described as a turning point for consciousness of workers and young people.
In his introduction, Victor Taibo (Izquierda Revolucionaria - CWI in the Spanish state) described how at the beginning of this crisis in 2007 – 2008 shock and fear were widespread among the working class and young people around the world. Later, we saw the beginnings of organisation and resistance against austerity which was being implemented by social democratic parties for example in Spain (PSOE) and Greece (Pasok) as well as right wing governments such as in France under Sarkozy. The role of formerly social democratic parties in implementing austerity was a factor adding to the conditions in which there was space and a need for new formations on the left.
In the Spanish state, Victor continued, the Indignados movement marked a turning point. This represented an explosion and illustrated the inability of the trade union movement and established left to put forward a plan for how the working class and youth could defeat austerity. This was an independent movement in which the United Left party did not seriously intervene. Following this, campaigns and movements continued especially against evictions, privatisation of health and education as well as few but significant trade union disputes in the private sector. These movement from below, beginning with the Indignados, later provided the base out of which Podemos was built as its electoral reflection. Victor pointed to the quick pace of events as he described the emergence of Podemos which required a change in tactics and orientation of revolutionary Marxists.
In the Spanish state and often elsewhere the vacuum on the left was filled by new formations. Victor explained that this was necessary as the gap in the Spanish State could not be filled by Stalinist organisations. However, the full potential has not yet been realised in many countries. As Patrick (Socialist Alternative, CWI supporters in USA) pointed out, if Bernie Sanders had called for the establishment of a new party, it could have attracted over 100,000 members which would represent a significant force in the USA. Sanders has not done this, remaining orientated towards the Democrats and instead launched a loose movement that is not actively involved in struggles or campaigning.
Three main characteristics of new left formations in this period were highlighted:
1. They are an expression of the resistance against austerity and the changes that occurred since the 2007 – 2008 crisis.
2. They quickly show that there is limited space for reformism in this period as even specific reforms are quickly challenged by the limitations of capitalism.
3. They are volatile. Rapid shifts from left to right and back again are possible.
The second point was later developed by Sebei (Workers and Socialist Party, CWI in South Africa). He explained how the material basis for lasting reforms which existed, in the main capitalist countries, in the post Second World War era are no longer available today. He also spoke about how currently most reformist trends vary from classical reformism by the very limited demands they often put forward and a refusal to even mention socialism as an objective. In relation to the particular situation in South Africa, he highlighted the unique conditions there where the refusal of the left trade union leaders to seriously begin to implement their union’s call for a new workers’ party has led to the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters towards which WASP (CWI in South Africa) has a friendly approach while also openly and clearly criticising their programme and methods.
Podemos was given as an example for the third characteristic. Analysing its programme over three consecutive elections shows a move from a classic left reformist programme which attracted people to a programme more to the right before again moving to the left in the third set of elections. Victor stressed the importance of a programme’s real content, which is more helpful than attaching permanent labels of “left” or “right”. This shows that these new formations are volatile. The significance of the programme of these new formations was also highlighted by Simon (Sozialistische Alternative – CWI in Germany). SAV’s (CWI in Germany) involvement in the anti-capitalist left platform (AKL) within Die Linke has demonstrated its serious approach to others in and around the party. This in turn has allowed SAV comrades to win a certain influence on the party’s 2017 election programme which was described as further to the left compared to previous ones. Whilst not socialist it now includes calls for the nationalisation of key industries including large private companies, for example in the pharmaceutical industry. He characterised Die Linke's current programme as a far-left reformist programme.
The above characteristics are also expressed through the differences between the new left formations compared to social democratic parties in the post WW2 era. These differences include the lack of stable branches or structures as is the case for example with the Left Bloc in Portugal, Bernie Sanders’ ‘Our Revolution’ movement and Mélenchon’s ‘La France Insoumise’. Rachel (Gauche Revolutionnaire - CWI in France) linked this phenomenon to continuing elements of an “anti-party” mood among a layer who see parties as inherently bureaucratic, which is played upon by reformist leaders to avoid themselves being subject to democratic control. However, as she explained, these formations then end up not being democratic and avoiding political discussion and debate. Mélenchon’s proposal to “solve” local disagreements in groups of La France Insoumise for example is to simply split the local group and set up separate groups. Rachel explained that part of our task was to fight for internal democracy which for example involves comrades arguing for delegates to La France Insoumise’s upcoming convention to be elected rather than chosen by drawing names out of a hat as is the current approach.
Several speakers highlighted the issues that exist with the leaders of these new left parties. Victor pointed to the approach of leaders of these new formations which shy from confrontation with the right and instead accept their logic. Their approach is to convince the bourgeoisie of the need for changes which is futile, as was also stressed by Rafael (Liberdade Socialismo e Revolução - CWI in Brazil) who used the nearly 40 years’ experience of the PT (Partido Trabahista – Workers’ Party) to illustrate this point. Instead of basing themselves on the movement of working class and young people, they attempted to use parliamentary and bureaucratic manoeuvres. Ysmail (Socialismo Revolucionario - CWI in Portugal) illustrated this by giving the example of mistakes made by the Left Bloc in 2015 when they conducted negotiations to allow a PS government to be formed. Ysmail stressed that there was no disagreement with allowing this government to be formed as it was the only way to avoid a conservative government, but that we had to be highly critical of the way in which this was done. Negotiations were held behind closed doors and without the involvement of members or workers. There was no prior discussion about programme. In addition, the party’s leaders stopped all mobilisations and told workers to go home.
Janice (Xekinima, CWI in Greece) described reformist parties as being without both an anchor and a steering wheel. She outlined how the betrayal of the Greek working class two years ago by the leaders of Syriza was the result of reformism. She described this as a deep historical defeat but explained that it would not break the back of the working class. However, she outlined it was hard to see at this stage where are new left force would come from. Syriza is continuing the process of bourgeisification and disintegration with several groups having split away. The Communist Party (KKE) is also continuing its sectarian approach towards other left forces, rejecting any collaboration and setting ultimatums, and failing to grow from Syriza’s crisis.
Victor outlined how the ruling class is mistaken when it equates the movement with these reformist leaders. This has led to serious miscalculations by the bourgeoisie for example when they attempted to remove Pablo Iglesias from the leadership of Podemos and when similar moves were made in the Socialist Party in Spain, as well as with Corbyn and Mélenchon. These miscalculations have demonstrated the power of the movement and that ordinary people can mobilise, even when their leadership is found wanting.
Victor highlighted how reformists see parliamentary institutions as the avenue for change but that this is increasingly being contradicted by the experience of ordinary people who see that even when new left formations have representation, institutions do not change things. This is demonstrated at national level with Syriza in Greece but also locally when new formations participate in implementing cuts at local or city levels. Die Linke is a relevant example; Simon (Sozialistische Alternative, CWI in Germany) explained how Die Linke continues to be “two parties in one” as some orientate solely towards parliamentary work and are aiming for coalition with the Greens and SPD while there others focus on the movement of ordinary people including through strikes. Fred (Alternative Socialiste, CWI in Québec) spoke about a similar phenomenon in Québec Solidaire. He described tensions between the base of the party and the parliamentary wing which does not promote the most radical parts of the party’s programme.
Victor concluded his leadoff by speaking about the implications for the tasks and tactics of Marxists, which must involve aspects of the united front. He stressed the importance of having clarity in our programme and the need to make this socialist programme a reality within the broader movement. This, he explained, requires us to also apply our ideas to concrete situations and struggles as our ability to provide methods and strategies that can win sets us apart from others. He gave a recent example of a strike by Barcelona subway workers in which comrades from Izquierda Revolucionaria intervened and for which they formulated a list of clear and relevant demands. Speakers, including Rachel from France, discussed how taking up the programmes of these new parties also offer opportunities to us to explain why an anti-capitalist and socialist approach was needed. Roger (Socialist Party, CWI in England & Wales) stressed the need for us to have a flexible approach to new left parties. He explained that during the campaign for ‘metro major’ for the Liverpool region and as a result of Theresa May calling a general election, there was a palpable shift in attitudes from a hatred of Labour over its role on local councils in implementing cuts to a support of Labour to get the Tories out of government.
Bob (International Secretariat of the CWI) pointed out that the development of new left formations was significant but that these were not an end in themselves. They are a potential step towards new mass genuinely socialist parties. He explained how we had to look both at how they developed, not just individual successes or good election results. Mistakes and lost opportunities also had the potential to end up setting the movement back as happened with the collapse of the PRC in Italy, a party which in 1996 won over 3 million votes. He also stressed that the volatility of these formations requires us to be very clear about our own Marxist politics and independent profile while working to help rebuild the workers’ movement and clarify its policies.
Overall the discussion highlighted the importance of being politically clear while at the same time highly flexible on tactics and approach. All sections of the CWI are working in complex, dynamic and unique circumstances which will pose different challenges. In replying to the discussion, Alec Thraves (Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales) stressed that while our comrades are active and determined fighters for reforms, we do not accept reformism. These circumstances provide opportunities to advance our socialist programme in a transitional way which will distinguish us from other groups and will allow us to win important sections to Marxism. He concluded the discussion by outlining the dual tasks we face; firstly, that of building the revolutionary party including through the development of Marxist cadre and secondly that of assisting the development of broader left formations which can provide a voice for the disenfranchised masses and represent a step along the road to mass revolutionary parties.