Theory: Problems of building new workers’ parties

Lessons from history, the recent experience of Italy and Germany, and the latest developments in Brazil.

One of the major issues facing workers around the world is political representation. Traditional workers’ organisations have been moving steadily rightwards, abandoning the ideas of socialism. Here Peter Taaffe draws some lessons from history and from the recent experience of Italy and Germany, while focussing on the latest developments in Brazil.

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Problems of building new workers’ parties

A central question for the worldwide workers’ movement – perhaps the most crucial at this stage – is the absence in most countries of an independent political voice in the form of a mass workers’ party or parties. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the odious Stalinist regimes also witnessed the liquidation of the planned economies. This was an important historical turning point, with major consequences for the working class and, particularly, its consciousness. Coinciding with the long 1990s boom and the remorseless pressure of neo-liberal capitalism, this acted to rot the foundations of social democracy and the ’Communist’ parties. The former, characterised by Lenin and Trotsky in the past as ’bourgeois workers’ parties’, witnessed the complete disappearance of their ’worker’ base as they became purely bourgeois formations. This means that, for the first time in generations – for more than 100 years in the case of Britain – the working class is without a mass political platform.

But this is not the first time in history that Marxists have been confronted with such a situation. Neither Marx nor Engels believed that the working-class movement would acquire an independent class or socialist consciousness by agitation, propaganda or even their powerful theoretical ideas alone. Experience would be the greatest teacher of the working class, argued Marx, combined with the ideas of scientific socialism. It was for this reason that Marx, while never diluting his own theoretical treasure trove of ideas, strove to link together in action the disparate forces of the working class, for instance, through the establishment of the

First International.

The Marxists combined with English trade unionists and even anarchists in the work of the International. Marx always proceeded from the existing level of organisation and consciousness of the working class, seeking through his own priceless intervention, to take it to a higher plane. The First International fulfilled this colossal task but, following the defeat of the Paris Commune and the attempted sabotage and disruption of the anarchists led by Bakunin, the First International had exhausted its historical mission and was wound up. This experience, however, was vital in preparing the ground for the Second International, with the development of mass parties, the acceptance of socialism, etc.

Engels & the Labour Party

The same basic approach of Marx was adopted by Engels in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in Britain, for instance, during the working class’s ’long winter sleep’. He patiently propagated the idea of an ’independent working man’s party’, in opposition to the socialist and even ’Marxist’ sectarian forces of the time. He did not base himself upon the Social Democratic Federation that formally adhered to ’scientific socialism’, for instance, which had at one time upwards of 10,000 members but which adopted an ultimatist and sectarian attitude towards other forces and particularly to the idea of combining to create an independent party of the working class. There was no greater theoretician in the workers’ movement then than Engels, historically second only to Marx himself, but he insisted that, given the existing level of consciousness and political organisation of the British working class, that if it took one ’real step forward’, this would be worth a dozen programmes. This was clear recognition, vindicated later by the development of a mass Labour Party itself, that a ’pure’, unsullied Marxist organisation in Britain with mass roots would not develop without the mass of the working class first passing through the experience of its ’own’ independent party.

Lenin adopted the same broad approach towards the Labour Party when it came into existence, even when it did not have a socialist clause. He argued that while the Labour Party "does not recognise the class struggle, the class struggle will certainly recognise the Labour Party". He was again vindicated with the sharp shift towards the left in Britain, with pronounced revolutionary overtones, following the Russian revolution. This was expressed within the Labour Party with the adoption of the socialist aspiration, through its famous Clause Four. This was only liquidated by the ’bourgeois entrist’ Blair in 1995.

Since then, the process of political degeneration of ’New Labour’ has been inexorable and unalterable. This is despite the forlorn hopes of those like Tony Benn who inhabit an isolated left reformist outpost in a New Labour sea of neo-liberalism. This degeneration is not just ideological in its consequences but has materially affected the struggles of the working class. The bourgeoisie was highly successful in using the collapse of Stalinism to conduct an ideological counter-revolution worldwide. Its greatest effects were on the tops of the social democracy and the trade union right-wing. Their enthusiastic embrace of the market has strengthened the ability of the bourgeoisie to sell its neo-liberal programme accompanied by Thatcher’s mantra, ’There is no alternative’. Unlike in the 1980s, when this idea was rejected, it is now reinforced by the ex-social democratic leaders and the trade union right-wing.

The only game in town

When there were reformist, ’bourgeois workers’ parties’, the ruling class was at least forced to look over its shoulder. These parties were to some extent a ’check’, at least partially, on the bourgeoisie going ’too far’. A glance at Germany today reinforces this point. The emergence of the ’Left’ Party led by Oskar Lafontaine, even with all his and the party’s inadequacies, has nevertheless exercised an effect on the Social Democrats (SPD). Enmeshed in a bourgeois coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the SPD has seen a dramatic loss in support, both electorally and in membership. Conversely, the Left Party has drawn support away from the SPD and presently stands at around 12% in opinion polls. This, in turn, has compelled the social democrats to oppose some of the ’reforms’, such as the brutal attack on the unemployed, which they themselves accepted previously within the coalition and the previous Schröder government.

In Britain, Thatcher’s mantra is now Brown’s. ’What is your alternative to New Labour?’ he intones to the trade union leadership. Their answer is to cling to Brown’s leg like a mugging victim, as he puts the boot in to the working class and the trade unions themselves. Elections – with the three major parties effectively indistinguishable from one another in the ’muddled middle’ – are virtually a farce now in Britain. The ’first-past-the-post’ electoral system, combined with the absence of ’choice’, means that the outcome of the next election in Britain, as Polly Toynbee of The Guardian pointed out, will be determined by the ’marginals’. Ultimately, a mere 20,000 ’swing voters’ in these seats decide the outcome.

This goes together with the domination of an ossified right-wing bureaucratic caste at the top of the trade unions, like Prentis of Unison and now others, as shown in the recent local government ballot and the postal dispute, which acts as a giant brake on any effective industrial action. But the colossal discontent from below means that this situation will not be allowed to continue without a challenge, either industrially or politically. Without a serious challenge from the left, including the trade union left, Brown will continue to treat the trade unions and particularly their leadership with contempt, safe in the knowledge that ’New Labour is the only game in town’.

A similar dilemma confronts the French working class, locked in an epic struggle at present with the Sarkozy government, which is bent on smashing its rights and conditions. In the last 15 years, each time the French bourgeoisie has sought to confront the working class in this way it has ended either in their partial defeat or a ’draw’. But given their perception that they are falling behind their capitalist competitors, both in Europe and internationally, they are hell-bent ’this time’ on forcing concessions from the working class. The absence of a mass pole of attraction, in the form of a mass party, is undoubtedly a factor weakening the struggle in France.

Sarkozy was able to win the last election with a campaign against his own government, which, according to him, was presiding over a ’blocked society’. He was only able to do this because there was no challenge whatsoever from Ségolène Royal and her now bourgeois ’Socialist’ Party. Paying lip service to the 35-hour week, she immediately repudiated this after the election. Even in 1995, when the French workers defeated the bourgeois and its ’Juppé plan’, the lack of a mass political alternative was palpable. The capitalists could be forced back then but because there was no alternative government and no mass political party to advance this, all the necessary conclusions were not drawn.

Lessons in Brazil

This situation does not exist in Brazil, because of the formation of the Party of Socialism and Liberty (P-SoL), which was formed in 2004, resulting from the revolt against the Lula government’s swing towards the right following his election in 2002. The formation of this party and its subsequent evolution is important for Brazil itself but also holds many lessons for the workers and left movement internationally. The establishment of P-SoL was a product of the utter disgust felt by public-sector workers in particular at the speedy betrayal of Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT) government in its attacks on them at the behest of Brazilian capitalism.

Prior to this sections of the Brazilian left, even those with Trotskyist antecedents, held out some hopes that Lula would install a ’left’ government in power. This was despite the fact that Lula himself had indicated his capitulation to the ’Washington consensus’ of neo-liberalism – privatisation, precarious work, bending the knee to foreign capital – prior to the election. His rightward evolution was shown by the praise that he earned from the high priests of ’social-democratic’ neo-liberalism internationally. Whereas Blair and Mandelson had attacked the PT and Lula previously, now he earned nothing but praise. True to his word, Lula has proved to be a ’safe pair of hands’ for Brazilian capitalism and imperialism. The attack on the civil servants, however, provoked opposition within the PT, expressed forcefully by a number of PT parliamentary representatives, such as Heloísa Helena, Baba and Luciano Genro. They were summarily expelled, along with another MP, by Lula for opposing his ’pension reform’ programme.

The sense of betrayal was acute, given the fact that Lula – unlike Blair – had originally come from the depths of the Brazilian working class. P-SoL rallied significant sections of the fighting, militant Brazilian left. At its founding conference in 2004, the party was markedly socialist and to the left, with most of those participating coming from a Trotskyist background. Trotskyism has strong roots in Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Argentina. This was reflected in two main trends, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) of Ernest Mandel, and the ’Morenoite’ organisations, led by Nahuel Moreno. ’Morenoism’ and its international organisation, the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (LIT – International Workers’ League) represented a reaction to Mandel, who combined ultra-left policies at one stage – including disastrous support for urban guerrilla movements – with opportunism, which subsequently led the USFI to fracture in Brazil. Some of his past adherents have participated as ministers in the Lula government.

Within the Morenoite tradition, one can find admirable, self-sacrificing workers, with many who have made big sacrifices, some of them paying with their lives for the workers’ cause. This was particularly the case in Argentina and Brazil. At the same time, Moreno’s opposition to Mandel’s opportunism was expressed crudely. Also, Moreno himself, as shown by his overestimation of the MAS in Argentina in the 1980s, made serious mistakes of an ultra-left character. Although the MAS in Argentina grew into a considerable force, Moreno overestimated its capacity to ’take power’. After his death his heirs made many mistakes, the most important of which was over the collapse of Stalinism. They present this in a one-sided way as ’progressive’. Not so the bourgeoisie internationally, whose attitude was summed up by the Wall Street Journal which declared in an editorial that, for capitalism, ’We won’.

The result of this was a fracturing of Morenoism into different organisations and ’Internationals’, ferociously competing against one another for the support of a narrowing base of former Morenoite militants. When confronted by opposition, rather than debating and discussing the ideas out – as is the tradition of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – arbitrary expulsions, as in the manner of the British SWP, or merely an ’invitation to leave’, are the usual reactions of the leadership.

Early success

Despite this, most of those who set up P-SoL came out of the PT and were from a Trotskyist background. In the 2006 presidential elections, Heloísa Helena, who comes from the Mandelite tradition, as the party’s presidential candidate got almost seven million votes as a left alternative to Lula’s alleged ’traditional left’ government. This spectacular success of a very young party – more successful, for instance, than the PT in its first national electoral outing in 1982 – was a complete vindication of those, like Socialismo Revolucionário (SR) and the CWI, who have consistently argued for a new mass party. Consequently, SR was one of the pioneers of P-SoL – lending its resources and offices to the party in the first period – and also had a presence on the National Executive of the party itself. Above all, this new party enshrined the rights of platforms and tendencies, which ensured it was extremely democratic.

However, this party, like the Left Party in Germany, has not been born in a period of intensified class struggle, particularly industrial conflict, as was the case, for instance, with the PT in the 1980s or COSATU, the South African trade union federation, which was pronouncedly socialist and ’revolutionary’ in its first phase of existence. This put a certain stamp on P-SoL: it was and remains a small mass working-class party. The new mass parties that were formed in the aftermath of the Russian revolution came from splits in the old organisations of the working class, the social democracy, taking with them the great majority of the active workers in the old parties. Even then, the social democracy, largely empty of members, still retained residual support from inactive workers. Sometimes it was the majority of workers who clung to these organisations through sheer historical inertia and lack of consciousness of the need for a new revolutionary party. This required, as Lenin and Trotsky argued, that these new Communist parties adopt the ’united front’ tactic to reach and influence in action the workers still under the banner of social democracy.

However, the new formations, the Communist parties, developed in a period of revolution, were generally large, with an active base, and with roots within the working class. This is not the case with the Left Party in Germany, which is mostly an electoral phenomenon at this stage. Only a few workers and youth have been prepared to enter its ranks – particularly in Berlin and east Germany. In these areas it is viewed with suspicion because of the party’s connections with Stalinism and now the coalition governments in Berlin, in particular, and elsewhere that attack the living standards of the working class. P-SoL in its first phase of existence was different. A number of Trotskyist organisations were present but so also was an important layer of workers, of ’independents’, etc.

At the same time, the Lula government repelled more and more of its base as it shifted towards the right. The PT-backed president of the Brazilian Senate, Renan Calheiros, has been forced to take leave because of a corruption scandal. It is alleged, among other things, that he arranged for payments to be made to a female former journalist with whom he was having an affair and by whom he has a three-year-old daughter. Brazil is used to corruption, which is endemic in bourgeois parties. But the saga of Renan’s misdemeanours was a ’scandal too far’. Popular pressure forced Lula’s hand and Renan has been ejected from office.

But Lula’s government has been dogged by charges of corruption since May 2005. Initially, they caused serious damage, but so inured and so ’integrated’ into Brazilian political life is corruption that the Brazilian people ’expect nothing better of their politicians’. An estimated 30% of Congress representatives have criminal proceedings open against them. In fact, many seek office to avoid prosecution from the courts! The cost of corruption is put by one study as equivalent to 0.5% of gross domestic product. Yet, there was a time when the PT was perceived as ’different’, with its socialist vision of a new society. Now, like its counterparts the ex-social democrats and ex-Communist party chiefs in Europe and elsewhere, having accepted capitalism it has embraced the ’pork barrel’ philosophy that goes with it.

The Brazilian bourgeoisie is reconciled to Lula’s government because it is ’doing the job’, defending capitalism’s profits. Credit and domestic demand are booming as millions of poor Brazilians become ’consumers for the first time’ (Financial Times). What happens when the bottom falls out of the US economy and has repercussions on China, a huge market for Brazil’s commodities, is another matter. Even a slowdown in the rate of growth of the Brazilian economy will be a catastrophe for millions, especially of the poor, who have looked towards the Lula government for some deliverance from the nightmare of daily living for millions of Brazilians. Agriculture, the service economy and even industry have experienced growth on the back of the world economic upswing. Also, consumer spending has risen, helped by some increase in the minimum wage and benefits for the poorest, and an injection of credit into the economy, which has doubled in size since 2003. This is about 35% of GDP. A world economic slowdown or recession could have a devastating effect on the millions whose hopes have been raised by the recent growth of the economy and the creation of jobs, albeit very low paid.

The government claims that there have been more than 1.2 million jobs created in the twelve months to July 2007. This has meant some of the very poorest sections of the population and even sections of the working class have gained from the Lula government. Consequently, the underlying support electorally for the government has not yet evaporated. The bourgeoisie tolerates Lula as the ’best option’, and the poor and working class have not yet, in the great majority, withdrawn their support from the government. The middle class, on the other hand, feels most acutely the crisis in the infrastructure, particularly in the airline industry. It is, in its majority, opposed to the government. The economic, social and political situation is consequently highly volatile.

To advance further from its important but limited base of 6% of the electorate, P-SoL should be positioning itself to attract to its ranks the ’heavy reserves’ of the working class which still tentatively remain behind Lula and the PT. They will break from this mooring once Brazil is affected by the stormy economic and social waves which impend. But it is not at all guaranteed that they will pass over to P-SoL, if the party itself does not embrace the policies, the strategy and tactics to attract them.

The coalition trap

The development of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy holds many lessons and warnings for P-SoL and Brazil. The creation of the PRC represented a giant step forward for the Italian working class but, initially, it took with it just the most militant advanced layers. The party, particularly under the leadership of Bertinotti, did not seriously undermine the base of the Democrats of the Left (DS – the bulk of the ex-Communist Party) even when the latter moved towards the right. One of the reasons for this was the inconsistent position of the PRC, particularly its emphasis on electoralism at the expense of a dynamic class-struggle policy. Moreover, instead of pursuing a policy of working-class intransigence to capitalism, the PRC leadership slid into the swamp of coalitionism. Even before a ’national bloc’ was formed, at local and citywide levels the PRC was sharing power with bourgeois parties. This invariably led to attacks on the workers and the unions at a local level, which the PRC took responsibility for in the eyes of the workers.

It was not a big step from this to a formal coalition with the bourgeois parties around Prodi at a national level. Initially, it was support from the ’outside’ by the PRC for the ’Olive Tree’ government of 1996. Without even the ’benefits’ of ministerial portfolios and the trappings that go with them, the PRC consequently earned the odium of association with this government’s attacks on the working class and the trade unions. This paved the way for the return of Berlusconi. They have gone a step further in Italy now, formally joining Prodi’s coalition, which like Lula in Brazil is attacking pensions, education and all the past gains of the Italian working class. Under the baton of Bertinotti as ’president’ of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the PRC is shedding its skin as a specifically separate workers’ party to become part of a ’red thing’, which is a mask for creating another liberal capitalist party.

The process has not yet been fully completed within the PRC but it is a big warning to P-SoL and all new organisations of the working class if they embrace coalitionism. Without clear policies, this means that these new formations, rather than being a chrysalis from which a mass pole of attraction can form, could be smothered at birth. P-SoL has not reached this stage as yet. But the enormous pressures of bourgeois society to ’conform’, to elevate the electoral profile at the expense of intervention in the class struggle, particularly the industrial struggle and the social movements in general, has had some effect on the leadership of P-SoL.

Rightward drift

It was reflected in the elections in the playing down of radical policies, and particularly its presidential candidate, Heloísa Helena. This was done in order to court the maximum number of votes. She has also opposed abortion but has come into conflict on this issue with the bulk of P-SoL’s membership. Heloísa’s position met with implacable opposition from the majority of delegates at the recent P-SoL congress. But a group around her, particularly some like the MP Luciana Genro from Rio Grande Del Sul, have sought to push P-SoL towards more ’practical’ policies, that is a more right-wing position. They have been reinforced by refugees from the PT, who have now entered the ranks of P-SoL.

Together, they have successfully shifted P-SoL’s leadership in a rightward direction, which in turn has provoked a left opposition, within which Socialismo Revolucionário works. This opposition received just under a quarter of the votes at the P-SoL congress. SR seeks to go beyond this in forging a united front of the most consistent organisations on the left, through a ’bloc of four’ within P-SoL. This has involved SR together with other groups spread throughout Brazil, all of whom come from a Trotskyist background.

There are some historical parallels with this development. After the victory of Hitler in 1933, without the Communist Party undertaking serious resistance, a deep crisis of confidence in the existing ’Internationals’ existed. Trotsky raised the need for a new, ’Fourth’ International. Arising from this was the formation of a ’Bloc of Four’ parties, described by Trotsky as "exceptionally important". The four parties were the Trotskyist International Left Opposition, the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAP), and two Dutch left parties, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Independent Socialist Party (OSP), who signed a declaration for a ’new International’ on the principled foundations of Marx and Lenin.

This earlier ’bloc of four’ set itself more grandiose targets than the present bloc of four within P-SoL but the issues were fundamentally the same: how to maximise the potential for the left in the working class movement. This bloc was never consolidated into a new permanent formation because of political inconsistencies of the leaders of the non-Trotskyist parties. The organisations in the case of Brazil are much closer politically, with every chance, if political clarity is attained, in forging a coherent political force within P-SoL.

P-SoL shows, as also with the earlier ’experiment’ of the PRC in Italy, that continued success, the growth of influence and numbers, is not automatically guaranteed if a new party shifts towards the right. However, the left is clearer and has more potential in P-SoL than in the PRC. This is because the Trotskyist organisations, from the foundation of the PRC, pursued a fundamentally incorrect policy. The USFI, led by the late Livio Maitan, was indistinguishable from Bertinotti – they were for a long time part of the same ’fraction’ and, consequently, did not gain substantial forces. Others either adopted an ultra-left position or a purely propagandistic, super-wise role of commentators.

Brazil’s bloc of four

The current organised left opposition in P-SoL is much stronger politically than this. The united front of organisations, the bloc of four within P-SoL, includes comrades from Alternativa Revolucionária Socialista (Revolutionary Socialist Alternative – ARS), located in particular in Belem in the north of Brazil. Another organisation in São Paulo is the CLS (Socialist Liberty Collective), made up of workers with a history of struggle both in São Paulo and Minas Gerais, a very important state, where the CLS has an important base in the social movements, particularly the landless movement and among print workers. Two other organisations are participating in this bloc. It is hoped that the ’bloc of four’ will be consolidated in a series of meetings and public activities which then could attract other dissident groups in P-SoL.

At the same time, a process of regroupment of the Marxist-Trotskyist left is under way. At its recent congress, attended by representatives of groups working in the bloc of four, SR set itself the task, together with these comrades, of building a numerically stronger and far more influential Marxist force. Given that at this stage P-SoL is relatively empty of new layers of the working class, this task will not be achieved by merely concentrating activity within the party. The battle on the industrial stage is as crucial, if not more so, at present. But P-SoL has not exhausted its potential. The collapse of ’Lulaism’ and the PT will result in important layers transferring their hopes to P-SoL. One of the justifications for a new mass workers’ party is that it offers the chance for the working class and the left to gather together the hitherto disparate scattered forces.

Such new parties are an arena for discussion and debate and the working out of policies that can guarantee success for the working class in the future. The existence of a viable, Marxist-Trotskyist spine within such a party is vital to its success. Without this, these parties, including P-SoL, can stagnate, even decline and disappear from the political stage, even if they have initial successes. That seems unlikely in Brazil, given the influence of Marxism within the party.

The tasks of Marxists in Brazil, which will be eagerly followed by Marxists throughout the world, is to intervene in the processes unfolding in P-SoL, to delineate clearly from reformism and the shades of centrism – revolutionary words but reformist deeds – by bringing together the best forces of the P-SoL left. The first step towards this goal is the creation of a powerful Trotskyist organisation, with clear perspectives, tactics, strategy and organisation. Capitalism is moving into crisis but this does not automatically mean that the left will gain. To do that, it needs to create new mass workers’ parties. The developments in P-SoL will be eagerly watched and studied by Marxists throughout the world, in order to learn the lessons for similar developments elsewhere.

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December 2007