Theory: – Is it time for new workers’ parties?

Since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, we have witnessed the transformation of the former mass parties of the working class, the labour and social democratic parties, into fully-fledged capitalist parties.

As the leaders of the labour and social democratic parties embrace neo-liberalism:

Is it time for new workers’ parties?

On an international scale the collapse of Stalinism for a period of time, assisted by the propaganda of the capitalist media, and the leaders of the ex-parties of the working class, reinforced in the minds of many working class people that there is no alternative to capitalism.

Subsequently the leaderships of the ex-workers’ parties have embraced neo-liberalism and globalisation. This is particularly the case with the likes of Tony Blair and Schroeder in Germany. They have not only become capitalism’s biggest cheerleaders but they have unleashed attack after attack on the working class. The process has gone so far that it is ruled out that these parties can be reclaimed by the working class as parties to defend and fight for their class interests. As a result a political vacuum now exists that can and must be filled by the building of new mass parties of the working class.

Moves in the direction of forming new workers’ parties have occurred in some countries.

The Rifondazione Communista (PRC) in Italy and the Scottish Socialist Party have been formed but unfortunately these parties have since moved to the right. The PRC supporting attacks on the working class and the SSP has embraced the ideas of left wing Scottish nationalism.

Recently major and significant political struggles in Brazil and Germany has resulted in the formation of the P-SOL in Brazil and the "Election Alternative – Jobs and Social Justice" (WASG) in Germany.

However in other countries including Ireland the process has not reached this stage. Some small groups, notably the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have tried to ape what happened in Scotland and Brazil, but, all that they have produced are caricatures. The failed attempt to build the the Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA) in the North is an example. More recently they have been discussing with independent Dublin Councillor, Joan Collins, and others the possibility of a new alliance in the South, but this is unlikely to produce any better results.

The Socialist Party and its international organisation the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) are in favour of building new mass workers’ parties. The formation of such parties would be of major assistance to the struggles of working class people. They also would reflect and assist in the politicisation of the working class, and could play an invaluable role in spreading confidence amongst workers in their ability to take on the employers and the establishment parties.

At the moment there are many tens of millions of workers, women and youth who are opposed to the war in Iraq, and to the policies of neo-liberalism which are sweeping across the globe. New mass workers’ parties could unite all these workers and their struggles, thus strengthening the ability of the working class to achieve victories and blows against their capitalist governments.

The CWI is actively engaged in trying to assist the formation of such new parties in many countries. Our members in Scotland, Brazil and Germany have all been active in the development of new parties. In Ireland the Socialist Party has played a leading role in bringing together broad alliances of political groups to campaign on many issues. These include the Labour Coalition in the North and the Taxation Justice Alliance in the South. We have an unrivalled record of working with many groups and individuals on different issues and campaigns including the campaigns against the water charges and the bin charges.

History has demonstrated time and again that it is when workers engage in industrial or political struggles that they see the need to have their own political representation.

The original mass workers’ parties were born out of mass struggles involving millions of working class people. Workers had built powerful trade unions to fight the bosses but they came up against the obstacle of not having their own political representation as the existing mainly pro capitalist parties sided with the establishment and the bosses. This led at different stages in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century to the establishment of workers’ parties throughout Europe.

In Ireland James Connolly issued the call for the establishment of the Labour Party in 1912, which he with others founded in 1914. This period in Irish history was characterised by mass political and industrial struggles of the working class. It is no accident that the Irish Labour Party was formed after the tumultuous events of the Dublin Lock-out in 1913, and the first years of its existence saw mass movements of the working class including a general strike and the formation of soviets!

The Socialist Party does not agree with those who claim that the conditions exist now in Ireland, North and South for the successful launch and creation of new workers’ parties. Nor do we accept that the forces exist even to establish temporary alliances in an attempt to speed up the formation of such parties. It is impossible to outline a blueprint for how these new workers’ parties will develop. The conditions that will give rise to their emergence will vary from country to country. But in all countries these parties will emerge fundamentally as a result of an increase in struggle by the working class that will create a new layer of politicised workers and youth seeking an alternative to the present political establishment.

Future struggles

There are many working class people who agree with the idea that we need a political alternative to the parties of the right. Unfortunately, however, in many countries including Ireland, North and South there are not thousands or even hundreds of workers actively seeking to build such parties and crucially there has not been significant political and industrial struggles particularly in the South in recent years. Any new formation will need the life blood of fresh workers and youth who have been or are engaged in struggle if it is to develop. The Socialist Party does not share the view of many on the left that if only all the existing forces on the left came together to "issue the call" for a new party that it will just come into being. False starts and premature moves towards the formation of new workers’ parties which fail can have a negative impact on working class people and set back the creation of genuine mass workers’ parties.

Eamonn McCann got a good vote standing for the SEA in Derry in the November 2003 Assembly election. This reflected McCann’s base in Derry, not any real potential for the SWP dominated SEA. This was confirmed when McCann only got 1.6% as the SEA candidate for Europe. The SEA has not attracted fresh forces. Given the undemocratic methods of the SWP (at the meeting they called inviting activsts and groups to discus wheter to fight the election there were "Vote McCann for Europe" posters already up in the room) there is no prospect of it taking on flesh.

In the South some of the forces involved in the bin tax campaigns buoyed up by their local election results in Dublin are engaged in a process of trying to form an alliance.

The Socialist Party has participated in a number of their meetings, and the majority of those present were representing already existing left groups along with a few well known left political activists.

No one involved in this "initiative" seems to have a clear idea about what they are trying to achieve. For some this "initiative" represents a political impatience with the lack of struggle amongst the working class, for others it is clearly directed towards trying to assist them in achieving more success at the ballot box in the next general election.

Socialist Party representatives at these meetings have argued that this "initiative" is premature and that the fresh forces of working class activists that would be needed to launch a new political formation in Ireland do not at present exist, but will emerge from future struggles of the working class.

The formation of new left parties in Brazil and Germany highlight clearly the conditions of struggle that are necessary for new parties of the working class to emerge and contrast sharply with the above mentioned examples in Ireland. In Brazil a new workers’ party called P-SOL was founded in June of this year. The formation of P-SOL has developed very rapidly, barely 15 months after the coming to power of Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party) government. But this in turn is a product of the speed of disillusionment, bitterness and anger at the betrayal of the working class and poor of Brazil by Lula’s government. The trigger for the formation of P-SOL, potentially of huge significance for the working class of Brazil and for Latin America as a whole, was the expulsion of four MPs opposed to the counter-reforms of the Lula government.


They were the catalyst for the formation of the party that has found a big echo among workers and the radicalised youth. In the regional and city meetings leading up to the formation of this party, 20,000 people participated. Before he came to power, Lula promised to create ten million new jobs but there has been a catastrophic loss of one million jobs in the last year and a half. In Sao Paolo, for instance, the unemployment rate is 20% and the scarcity of jobs is such that 60% of the Brazilian labour force now works in the "informal sector’". Lula has completely accepted the dictates of the IMF, as is shown by his willingness to pay the debt and $50 billion interest charges to imperialist banks and firms. In 2003, the government allocated 54.61% of its budget to repay debt and interest charges. Not even Cardoso, the former Brazilian President, spent so much on this.

P-SOL has been formed by a number of Trotskyist organisations including the Socialismo Revolucinário (Revolutionary Socialism – CWI Brazil). P-SOL’s programme calls for a revolutionary break with capitalism, attacks imperialism, and speaks of how capitalism is leading humanity into a global crisis. It also proclaims the need for the new party to have a "strategy for socialism" as a fundamental aspect of the programme.

In Germany, Chancellor Schroeder and his SPD government have launched a massive attack on the welfare state. (See article on Germany page 8). This has sparked off a mass movement in opposition to the government. The WASG was set up in July of this year when two groups "Wahlalternative 2006" (Electoral Alternative 2006) and "Initiative Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit" (Jobs and Social Justice Initiative) merged. Both groups were made up of small groups of trade union officials of the trade union Ver.di (public service union) and IG Metall. However thousands of people attended meetings of the two groups across dozens of cities and 700 attended a congress in July. Opinion polls have indicated that this new formation could attract anywhere between 7%-15% of the vote. If the WASG goes ahead and launches a new party, it will have a big impact. However it is unclear if it will develop into a new workers’ party or remain a "protest" party.

The leaders of the WASG are reluctant to call the new party "left wing" not to mind socialist. They are worried, like the RESPECT leaders in Britain, about alienating certain voters. However Socialist Alternative, the Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Germany, has argued against this and is putting forward and arguing for a socialist programme including demands for a 30-hour week without loss of pay and a public investment programme aimed at creating employment. Despite our criticisms, Socialist Alternative supports this new initiative and is active in local WASG groups.

In Britain the Socialist Workers Party dominated Socialist Alliance has collapsed and now the RESPECT Unity Coalition has been established. So far RESPECT has been bureaucratically and undemocratically dominated by the SWP. RESPECT also includes the likes of former Labour MP George Galloway and initially anti-capitalist luminaries such as George Monbiot. Prominent members of the Muslim community in Britain have also joined RESPECT.


RESPECT was launched by the SWP as an attempt to draw into political activity large numbers of activists from the anti-war movement. Its main campaigning issue has been opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq. Its programme includes calls for nationalisation, opposition to tuition fees and to privatisation, but it does not stand on a socialist programme. One of the reasons why the SWP argued for a programme that was not socialist was to keep people like Monbiot, and leading Muslim activists who are not socialists onboard. However Monbiot has since left because he didn’t want to help RESPECT damage the vote of the Greens in the European elections! RESPECT’s leadership believes that if they overtly declared themselves to be socialist, it would damage them electorally, in particular amongst the Muslim community who they have been targeting for votes. RESPECT has also made many major political compromises, including on women’s and gay rights, aside from not calling for socialism. This represents an attempt to form a type of popular front with right wing elements within the Muslim community as well as middle class activists from the anti-war movement.

Having a socialist programme is not a pre-requisite to the formation of a new workers’ party or to the participation in such a party by Marxists. But socialists have a responsibility to argue within such a party or political alliance for a socialist programme. The SWP and others on the left in Britain are not only failing to do this in RESPECT but are actively arguing against it!

Socialist alternative

Unlike the Socialist Party, George Galloway and the SWP in Britain don’t believe the British Labour Party is beyond redemption. They believe that RESPECT could be used as a vehicle to reclaim the Labour Party for workers. This false perspective, a complete absence of internal democracy, and a leadership that is making major political concessions to pacify right wing political elements rather than campaigning for a socialist programme, means that RESPECT is doomed to failure.

There is no doubt that the struggles by the working class in Ireland, North and South, in Britain and around the world will give rise to new mass parties of the working class which will develop in the next period. During these struggles, millions of workers will clearly see the need to be politically organised in parties that can challenge neo-liberalism and the capitalist establishment. The Socialist Party and the CWI will be to the forefront of their formation and within them we will argue for a socialist programme. We will also openly organise within these parties to win over working class activists to the ideas of Marxism, for the need to build a revolutionary Marxist party and for the necessity of a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a socialist society.

From Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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November 2004