A balance sheet of the development of new workers’ parties

The ninth world congress of the Committee for a Workers’

International (CWI) took place in Belgium in mid-January.

Delegates and visitors from 25 of the 36 countries, in which the CWI organises, came together against the background of a worldwide increase in struggle against the effects of brutal 21st century capitalism. The following article is a summary of the discussion on new workers parties that took place at the Congress in mid January. New developments that have taken place in some of the organisations and countries mentioned below have and will be reported elsewhere on the CWI web site.

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Building new workers parties around the world

The CWI Congress discussed new left and workers’ parties - perspectives, the attitude of Marxists and workers towards these new formations, their political programmes - in a session full of experience and lessons. Parties and organisations which were mentioned in the session were the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG), the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) in Brazil, the Committee for Different Politics (CAP), the Scottish Socialist Party and the new formation Solidarity, Socialist Party in Netherlands, the Communist Refoundation (PRC) in Italy and the Left Bloc in Portugal.

Kevin Simpson opened the discussion and Tony Saunois, from the CWI International Secretariat, made the concluding remarks. Eighteen delegates and visitors from Latin America, Africa, Europe and the US contributed to the discussion.

The CWI, its affiliated organisations, and parties have raised the urgent necessity of building new workers’ parties in many more countries since the early 1990s. Such a task is a vital part of strengthening and rebuilding the workers’ movement internationally. This task flows from the move to the right by those social democratic and communist parties which the working class traditionally supported in the decades after the Second World War. From the early 1990s, the CWI explained that these parties had undergone a process of "bourgeosification". By this we meant that these parties had undergone such a profound move to the right politically that workers and young people no longer viewed them as ‘their parties’.

One of the reasons for this move to the right was the effect on the leadership of the workers movement of the capitalist class’s demand for the implementation of neoliberal policies and of the consequences of capitalist globalisation. Undoubtedly this was given a boost by the collapse of the Soviet Union which allowed the capitalist class internationally to launch a vicious ideological offensive portraying ‘socialism’ as having failed and the market as being victorious.  

Subsequently, when in government, many of these former workers parties adopted vicious neoliberal policies which completed their transformation into parties hated by increasing parts of the working class.

This left a massive vacuum in political representation for the working class internationally. It was for this reason the CWI and its affiliated parties called and campaigned for the building of new workers’ parties in an increasing number of countries. This did not mean that the CWI’s affiliated organisations and parties adopted the same tactics of working independently in every country where it had members. This depended on the political situation nationally and the consciousness amongst the working class. In India, our comrades worked in the mass communist parties until the end of the 1990s, because of the support these parties had amongst sections of the working class. In Nigeria, CWI members helped form and then joined the NCP (National Conscience Party) in 1994. This was a radical party rather than a new workers party based on socialist ideas but nevertheless, in the absence of a new workers’ party, represented an important development which many workers and young people looked to.

At the same time as contributing to strengthen the workers movement and campaigning for new workers parties, CWI members recruited workers and young people to their parties and organisations to build the forces of socialist revolution. Given the more complex political situation internationally then, there were discussions about this kind of an approach. As a result important debates took place in the CWI in the 1990s which underlined the role and necessity of a revolutionary party, against those who, coming under the pressure of the vicious propaganda against ‘socialism’, believed in shortcuts by diluting programme and profile.  

The points raised in this session of the World Congress explained the processes which lead to the formation and the character of some of these new organisations. One example given was the Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG) in Germany, which developed rapidly from its inception in 2004. The WASG shows that new left and working class parties arise as a result of new political developments in society. The building of the WASG in Germany followed the sharpest class divisions in German society for over 50 years, as a result of the most severe neo-liberal programme implemented by the then social democratic SPD/Green government. The foundation of the WASG was, therefore, part of central developments in German politics, with CWI members to the forefront.

Class polarisation

However, whilst these parties’ development followed a radicalisation in society, this occurred in the first stages of class polarisation as a result of social democratic and former left parties in government carrying out neoliberal attacks against the working class. While there are differences between the parties, this is the common characteristic between PSOL, WASG and the Left Bloc. By comparison, the PRC was formed in 1991 in a much more tumultuous period of sustained class struggle. This was reflected in its far more radical programme which talked about a socialist society, its mass membership of over 100 000 and the support it had amongst young people. The Dutch SP has also been more stable partially because its longer period of existence and the apparatus of party branches and full-timer workers it had. In contrast, while newer parties like the SSP and WASG in the past received significant electoral support, they did not develop a mass membership base with the former having 2 500 and the latter 12 000 members at the most. Neither did they have significant support amongst young people.

One of the processes which has developed within these new parties has been a tendency by the leadership to dilute their programme in the run-up to or after receiving electoral support.  This was, for example, the case with Heloisa Helena’s presidential campaign for PSOL in Brazil, last year, and also the case prior to this with the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party. The turn to the right of the leadership of these parties make them less accountable and less attractive to workers. It can also put a question mark over their survival in the future. Despite the lack of a clear socialist programme, CWI members in Germany in Socialist Alternative (SAV) were completely correct to join the WASG which was formed by mainly middle ranking trade union activists and officials. This was because the radicalisation in society meant that hundreds of thousands of workers were looking for an alternative. Socialist Alternative’s participation in the WASG meant that important sections of workers and young people looking to the party would come into contact with its socialist ideas and proposals to build the new party. For many this would be the first time they had come into contact with the ideas and campaigning strategy of Socialist Alternative.

Contributions to this session used this example to show why it is important not to wait for a ‘perfect’ example of a new workers party to come into being but participate in those organisations that do develop which have support amongst the working class. This support is not guaranteed and can be squandered if decisive moves in the direction of building a fighting alternative to the main parties are not made. An example of this has been shown in France where, we can see what happened when parties like Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) missed opportunities to build a new socialist and revolutionary workers party after receiving outstanding election results on two occasions. One of the features of  the French political situation is the gap between the sharp struggles taking place in France and the lack of any new political initiative. The adaptation of the LCR to the social democratic Parti Socialiste is just one explanation for this.

In England and Wales, the CWI’s Socialist Party, launched the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) in 2005. The CNWP has collected 2,500 signatures, most of them individuals with positions in the trade unions. Four hundred attended the conference of the CNWP. Socialist Party members believe there is more potential in this campaign in the coming period, with increased workers’ struggles and any illusions in the next Labour leader Brown being shattered. Some ultra-left groups criticise the programme of the CNWP for being too limited, but it is a platform allowing discussions with broader layers of workers and activists. While CWI members argue for a socialist programme, it is not possible to impose in advance exactly what programme a new party will have.

In Poland, CWI members (GPR) are involved in the new Party of Labour (PPP), which is mainly based on the most militant mineworkers’ union. The PPP’s programme demands a shorter working week, an increased minimum wage, nationalisation of illegally privatised companies, abortion rights, and for US troops to leave Iraq. In local elections, last September, the PPP got around 1% of the national vote although it did not stand in all districts. GPR members, standing as PPP candidates got 800 votes.

The Socialist Party in the Netherlands got 16.7 per cent in the recent elections (1.6 million votes). The Dutch Socialist Party developed out of a Maoist organisation in the 1960s but is now really seen by its rank and file as well as its voters as a left radical party. The leadership, however, has turned to the right and even kept open the possibility of a coalition with Dutch Labour Party.

Lafontaine’s "radical" speeches

The development of the WASG was also discussed in some detail. Soon after being set up, the party got 2.2% in the regional elections, in North Rhein Westphalia, and standing jointly with the PDS got 8.7% and 54 MPs in the general elections in 2005. This is as a result of the political vacuum in Germany, and of the well-known former social democratic leader, Oscar Lafontaine, joining the leadership of the WASG. Speakers at the Congress explained how in the run up to the Berlin elections, Lafontaine combined radical speeches with a plan to construct a "responsible" left party, via a fusion with the PDS, the former ruling party in Stalinist East Germany.

The SAV (CWI Germany) played a key role in defending an anti-capitalist profile for the WASG. In 2006, SAV members defeated several attempts to expel them or limit their influence. In these debates, SAV member, Lucy Redler, in Berlin, became a nationally known figure and was recognised as a left leader in Berlin. The discussion outlined that the fusion of WASG and the PDS was most likely to take place. As a result the perspective for the new party remains uncertain as the PDS leadership presides over austerity policies in councils and regional parliaments.

The perspectives for the PRC were also discussed, which joined the new Prodi government after the last general election. Despite some concessions, the first budget of this government is anti-working class, and the capitalists are pushing for more attacks. Speakers at the congress outlined that the PRC could still leave the coalition government, but this was not the most likely perspective. Prodi could also kick out the PRC, but, for the moment, he needs a left cover. Speakers from Italy outlined that if the PRC continued in the government, more splits from groups and activists are likely.

In Belgium, the initiative for a new party, the CAP, held a conference of 650 people, under a year from when the first discussions to set up the body. Key figures in starting the CAP include three older former social democratic MPs and trade union leaders. The CWI’s section in Belgium, the Left Socialist Party has played a vital role in building the CAP especially insofar as the June general elections are concerned.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was led by former members of the CWI, who left the CWI and politically moved to a reformist and nationalist position. In November 2004, the most well known leader, Tommy Sheridan, was manoeuvred out by the rest of the SSP leadership. When Tommy Sheridan successfully sued the tabloid, ‘News of the World’, some SSP leaders came forward as witnesses for the Murdoch newspaper. The International Socialists (CWI Scotland), together with Tommy Sheridan, last year quickly moved to form Solidarity - Scottish Socialist Movement, which already has 700 members. The trade unions that previously affiliated to the SSP have now left it.  Elections to the Scottish parliament this spring, will be important for the development of Solidarity.

Electoralism

Speakers from Brazil outlined the experience of the PSOL’s rapid development after the first election victory of Lula as candidate of the PT. In some of the initial discussions, activists did raise whether the timing was right to set up a new party like PSOL. But the alternative provided by PSOL reduced the disillusionment caused by Lula’s immediate introduction of neoliberal measures once in power. Prior to the presidential elections there was an influx of former PT members and groupings into PSOL which strengthened the reformist and electoralist tendencies within the PSOL leadership. As a result, the PSOL full congress was postponed and its executive replaced with Helena Heloisa’s campaign team (she was the PSOL presidential candidate). The potential of the PSOL was not fully realised, and its support dropped from its peak of 12%. The block of PT defectors in PSOL however, now dominates the leadership. Socialismo Revolutionario (CWI Brazil) will act a pole of attraction for all those activists and tendencies within PSOL who want to fight for a democratic and fighting socialist party

In Portugal, the Left Bloc (LB) has 8 MPs. But the LB is not participating, as a party, in strikes and struggles of the working class developing in Portugal. The party leadership has no perspective of the working class changing society.

The National Conscience Party (NCP), in Nigeria, was formed under military rule, in 1994. Its founder was a radical lawyer, with a programme of reforms - for free education, health care etc. The NCP had potential to attract students and workers who wanted to see the end of military rule. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM - CWI Nigeria) helped co-found the NCP. When civilian rule was introduced, in 1999, the military gave power to three parties it had founded. The DSM started to build NCP, with branches, structures and an active membership. Despite rigged elections, a DSM member came 3rd in the elections in Lagos state in 2002. Since the former leader of the NCP left the party, a new right wing leadership has tried stop the DSM from selling its paper and later expelled DSM general secretary Segun Sango, who also was the chairman of the NCP in Lagos, for a time. Whatever the final outcome of this battle, the DSM is well placed for the coming elections and new worker’s struggles.

This session of the Congress outlined the possibilities of future developments of new parties and organisation which the working class will join and look to. The contributions demonstrated that CWI members will do all they can to strengthen these formations as part of the struggle to build support for genuine socialist ideas amongst the working class.

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