An international balance sheet of the "broad party" strategy

by John Percy • Published 12 January 2013

There have been “broad parties” aplenty in the past claiming to represent workers, or broader classes, or “progress” in general – parties that are sometimes mass, mostly with electoral ambitions, but with programs that are social democratic, or left liberal, sometimes “all-inclusive”, but non-Leninist and non-Marxist. Such parties are not able to bring about fundamental social change; they cannot break the state power of the capitalist class. For that we need a revolution. We know a revolutionary party is necessary to carry that out, a Leninist party.

The program of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which used to be the program of the Democratic Socialist Party, is very clear on this question:

The working class cannot as a whole or spontaneously acquire the political class-consciousness necessary to prepare and guide its struggle for socialism. For this, it is indispensable to develop a party uniting all who are struggling against the abuses and injustices of capitalism and who have developed a socialist consciousness and commitment to carrying out revolutionary political activity irrespective of the conjunctural ebbs and flows of the mass movement…ultimately, only a revolutionary socialist party that has deep roots in the working class, that is composed primarily of workers, and that enjoys the respect and confidence of the workers, can lead the oppressed and exploited masses in overthrowing the political and economic power of capital. The central aim of the Revolutionary Socialist Party is to build such a mass revolutionary socialist party in Australia.[i]

The DSP has now ditched this program, and dissolved itself into the Socialist Alliance “broad party”, with a non-revolutionary program.

Such broad parties can and do develop outside the initiative of revolutionaries. Then it’s just a normal, standard, tactical question as to what approach revolutionaries should have towards such a party. Sometimes it’s correct to intervene, sometimes it’s not.

Of special interest to us, however, is when revolutionary Marxists elevate such broad parties into a special case, thinking that they might somehow be the replacement for revolutionary parties, or think that revolutionaries have to create such broad parties if they don’t exist, or dissolve their forces permanently into such parties.

This is what has been happening in the last 15 years or so among the Marxist left in advanced capitalist countries, so that it has become an issue in itself, the “broad party” question. It has been taken up by a number of Trotskyist currents, certainly the Fourth International, which unfortunately generalised, as it tends to do, and developed an overall strategy of “building anti-capitalist parties” in Europe,[ii] and tended to promote such tactics in other countries. The British Socialist Workers Party has also investigated this perspective, and it has been adopted by some of the parties that follow its lead, organised in the International Socialist Tendency.[iii]

This article looks at the experience of the “broad party” tactic/strategy as implemented by revolutionary socialists internationally in recent decades.[iv]

The political context

The generalised push for “broad parties” hasn’t just come out of the blue. It is related to both a crisis of political perspective due to retreats and defeats, for example the final collapse of the Soviet Union, and a mis-estimation of upsurges, the anti-globalisation movement for example, giving some false hopes.

1. The last two decades have been very much under the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the final unwinding of the gains of the Russian Revolution. There were defeats in Eastern Europe; the Chinese Revolution was unravelling in a capitalist direction; Cuba’s economy suffered special problems. The old Communist parties were dwindling before; now they declined further.

2. This was a period of imperialist cockiness, bragging about the “end of history”. The bourgeoisie was increasingly confident and aggressive; neoliberalism was rampant. Many unions and workers’ organisations were weakened or even totally smashed by this onslaught. The social democratic leadership dominant in many countries demonstrated their utter uselessness, capitulating further, or even leading the neoliberal charge.

3. This period also saw the rise of the Greens. The Green parties’ politics varied. They represented a growing environmental consciousness, and often became a political vehicle that attracted people on a range of left liberal issues. They soaked up some of the break from the more traditional “workers’ parties”, Communist parties, Social Democracy, Labor parties. Increasingly as they have consolidated, they have settled into more right wing positions.

4. This has also been a period of impressive campaigns against globalisation around the world, from the Seattle demonstration in 1999 through multiple demonstrations in Europe, and the World Social Forums initiated in Brazil and hosted in other countries also. These indicated a radicalisation of sorts, and for a while seemed a hopeful development, but politically these movements also exhibited a confusion about or hostility to the need for building revolutionary parties, with the anti-party strictures of the World Social Forum, and the NGOs and right wing parties in control.

The initial motivation when the DSP launched the Socialist Alliance in 2001 was that the tide had turned, that we were looking ahead to a period of upsurge from the end of the 1990s. The DSP experienced some growth, and was buoyed by the successful S11 mobilisation in Melbourne, surrounding Crown Casino, venue of the World Economic Forum in 2000. We looked to some seemingly successful broad parties such as the Scottish Socialist Party. The 2001 DSP Congress, 3-7 January in Sydney, still projected building an explicitly revolutionary party.[v] But soon after we’d noticed the International Socialist Organisation’s conference held in Melbourne later that month,[vi] taking note of the English Socialist Alliance and the British SWP’s participation in it and elections. We were waiting to see if the ISO here would follow the line of the SWP before tossing up the proposal for a Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance was launched with meetings in Melbourne on 6 March and in Sydney on 10 April. At the DSP National Committee in April, Peter Boyle said we were “looking at the Socialist Alliance as more than an electoral tactic”. [vii]

Adopting this tactic was dependent on that upsurge, the possibility of newly radicalising forces to be won over. But the DSP leadership certainly, and possibly other parties that got snared by this tactic, expanding it into a permanent strategy, misjudged. The upsurge did not continue. From the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the class struggle in advanced capitalist countries was generally on the decline.

The reality is that the push for “broad parties”, certainly the push to consider them a permanent perspective, more than a temporary tactic, was actually a result of the political downturn. Because at bottom, it is a political retreat from a revolutionary socialist perspective – a compromise, a settling down to the level of the “possible”.

The timing for “broad party” projects such as the Socialist Alliance was just wrong, with the partial upturn around globalisation dying down, when the enthusiasts were looking to bank all on them. In September 2002 Peter Boyle presented his big idea for ramping up the project – “Some wild thoughts about perspectives” – in a letter to the DSP leadership:

The more I think about it the more I think it is time for us to seriously consider taking the “Scottish road” with Socialist Alliance, i.e. dissolve the party into Socialist Alliance but taking over our main institutions, the paper and the apparatus associated with it.[viii]

He was not able to implement this straight away, but from September 2002 convinced the DSP to propose to operate as just a tendency in the Socialist Alliance. In the face of opposition from the ISO, the largest other group still in it, and other small groups, this push to “take the Scottish road” was slowed down.

But the decision in September 2002 to propose to the December DSP congress to transform the DSP into just an internal tendency within the Socialist Alliance was definitely a major mistake in my opinion, setting us on the path to splitting and liquidating the DSP. Some veterans of the Socialist Alliance debacle consider the very first steps in 2001 a big mistake.

Psychological pressures

The phenomenon has clear political roots, but it is also a psychological response to various pressures: the difficulty of the political situation, with the revolutionary left weak, capitalism seemingly triumphant; the length of time many activists have spent battling away, without advances. There are a number of options for individuals facing this psychological and political pressure:

A. Respond to the real situation and have a flexible, tactical approach to the political difficulties, but always retaining your fundamental revolutionary socialist perspective. After all, the need to overthrow the rotten capitalist system has not diminished. It has actually grown more acute – the environmental crisis is threatening human life on the planet; capitalism itself has been shown to be a shaky edifice. We would love to throw ourselves into an immediate struggle to smash the capitalist state, but tactical responses are obviously needed, given the small size of our forces, the strength of the bourgeoisie, the dulled consciousness of the working class, etc. We are mostly just small propaganda groups, unable at this stage to mobilise the class, certainly a long way from any actual revolutionary action.

B. Or look for a panacea, an easier course that has some fig leaf of justification, and puts aside the task of building a revolutionary organisation. This is easier: you don’t have to think for yourself or examine your own actual situation in detail. Sometimes this can be portrayed as a shortcut to the ultimate goal, although of course it isn’t.

C. Or settle into a non-revolutionary perspective (sometimes still conning oneself or one’s members that at heart you’re still a revolutionary, but “conditions don’t allow it at the moment”).

The pressures on revolutionaries are certainly very strong, pushing towards that last option, adjusting to life as a non-revolutionary. The revolutionary left has had a big turnover in places like Australia.

After decades of decline, downturn, difficulty for the revolutionary movement and for militant trade unionism, there is a tendency to get used to very small rewards, very modest victories, certainly well short of significant struggles, let alone revolutions. You set your sights very low. Even though you start off with option A, after a while you might find that revolutionary approach has been transformed into option C, making your peace, and often it has been mediated by the panacea or shortcut type of thinking.

Revolutionaries in such circumstances will often (almost always) say they are still for revolutions in theory, just that it’s not possible at the moment, or we need to build our forces in a non-revolutionary organisation first, or some other pretext. They will argue that they are pursuing the “broad party” course for tactical, temporary reasons. Sometimes there is real necessity – repression, for example – but sometimes it’s because of tiredness and sometimes it’s for opportunist reasons.

Crises following radicalisations

Over the twentieth century you can trace clear periods of radicalisation, interspersed with longer periods of decline and stagnation in the class struggle. It obviously varies from country to country and there are local developments that go against the general pattern, but I would identify the following periods of upsurge and radicalisation in most advanced capitalist countries. (In the Third World of course there were different dynamics, with many countries undergoing their own anti-imperialist struggles or struggles for national liberation and independence.)

  • The upsurge following World War I, very much inspired by the successful Bolshevik Revolution.
  • A modest upsurge after the Great Depression, not an immediate response, but several years after, as the workers’ movement recovered from the disaster.
  • The period following World War II, inspired by the defeat of fascism and the victory of the Red Army. This led to revolutionary opportunities in Europe, squandered by the CPs, but radicalisation in other countries too, before the onset of the Cold War.
  • The ’60s radicalisation, sparked by the civil rights movement in the USA and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. A youth and student radicalisation developed on political as well as social and cultural issues. A high point was the May-June 1968 revolutionary upsurge in France.

The radicalisation of the 1960s and early 1970s was exceptional, sparking thinking and activity and movements on a range of political issues. It revived or inspired revolutionary parties in many countries.

But after the radicalisation and the initial growth, there was a downturn, often leading to a crisis in the new revolutionary groups. Some of the new revolutionaries looked for new alternatives, some were diverted by “shortcuts”. Often there were quick departures from the left scene.

Of course it was encouraged by a conscious capitalist counterattack, the neoliberal offensive. The downturn and the difficulties were reinforced with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Building a revolutionary party became even harder in such countries; revolutionaries were even more isolated.

Many tactics

After such a long period of retreat, extended defeats and weakening of the working class, and a thrashing around looking for a way out of the doldrums, an unfortunate but frequent left response has been to get fixated on a particular tactic, to make it a permanent tactic, to convert the tactic into a strategy.

There are many tactics on the road to building a mass revolutionary party:

  • Proclamations, running up the flag, straight propaganda. You can issue a manifesto, the Communist Manifesto, for example. You can bring out a paper, announcing your program.
  • Unity, regroupments and fusions with other political currents heading in the same direction are an important tactic, with the possibility of reaching agreement in the face of new political developments – for example, Lenin’s Bolsheviks uniting with Trotsky’s Mezhraiontsy in 1917; Cannon’s unity with the Musteites in 1934 in building the US Trotskyist group.
  • Entry into another party, generally with broader support, with the goal of winning away some of the base, reducing the isolation, linking up with radicalising workers – for example, the US Trotskyists’ entry into the Socialist Party in 1936, a successful entry that lasted only a year. Or the longer term entry of some Trotskyist groups into the British Labour Party. Some European Trotskyist groups tried entry into Communist parties.
  • Concentration in industry, or particular industries, or campus, or particular communities or social sectors.
  • United fronts, coalitions or blocs. Participating with other forces, in a broader unity, on a specific campaign, to participate in elections, or produce a newspaper, build a new party, on less than your revolutionary program.
  • The name of the party or the actual form is not fixed. This can change given changing political circumstances.

One lesson is that we don’t rule out any tactic. Just as importantly, we have learnt that it’s best not to get stuck on a particular tactic. Tactics can be implemented well or badly. Mistakes can be made, but usually can be corrected, if we just see it as a tactic. Once elevated to a strategy, it’s harder to correct.

Tactics elevated to strategy

Even in the case of the Fourth International (FI), when there’s not so much a central party leading the current compared to some other internationals, there is a tendency to look for universal tactics. We saw it in the case of the entry tactic. It can be a useful tactic in some times and places, but it can get generalised and persisted in for far too long. This is still an “article of faith” for a number of Trotskyist currents, but was a problem of the FI for decades. It was proposed by Trotsky in the difficult conditions of the 1930s, “the French turn,” and some Trotskyist groups applied it.[ix] In some cases, for example the small group in Australia, the tactic of entry into the Labor Party was not applied until the middle of World War II, when the motivations were somewhat different: the group had been banned, so public work was no longer possible.[x] With the onset of the Cold War, further arguments for the entry tactic were developed by the secretary of the Fourth International, Michel Pablo, who argued for “deep entry”, for an extended period. It proved disastrous for most of the Trotskyist groups.

For “our” generation of parties, coming from the ’60s radicalisation – around the campaign against the war in Vietnam, inspired by the May-June 1968 revolutionary upsurge in France, in Australia, the USA, Europe – the revolution was real. The Cuban revolution was recent. So was Vietnam. The entry strategy seemed anachronistic.

The FI broke free of the entry “principle” in the ’60s, and largely came to terms with it in that fertile debate in the FI in the ’70s. We had to overcome it in the early years of developing our party. Many did not, such as Bob Gould, who stuck to his ALP membership throughout his life.

But the majority of the FI got caught up on a tactic again. At their World Congress in 1969, they elevated the tactic of guerrilla warfare in Latin America (and elsewhere!) to a strategy. It proved a disaster for the FI, and took a long debate and faction struggle to turn around.[xi] There was a counterposition in the FI between the party-building perspective as we saw it in the Cannonist tradition, led by the US SWP, and the tactics elevated to a strategy in the European FI tradition.

The SWP correctly rejected the guerrilla warfare strategy, but then at the end of the ’70s fell for another tactic elevated to a strategy, the “turn to industry”. It was a wrong call, based on a mis-estimation of the political situation, a prognosis of impending industrial struggle and radicalisation. It became the strategy, the shibboleth (actually overlain with the fact that SWP leader Jack Barnes had a sinister factional motive internationally at the start, to “screw the Europeans”, and perhaps a sinister factional motivation towards his own party – to guarantee his control and dominance, and wipe out any opposition). But he was hoist on his own petard. He was trapped, and killed off the US SWP.

We in the DSP carried out that turn, with some positive results and useful experiences, although of course there were costs too. When it became clear that the predicted working class upsurge on which the turn was predicated was not occurring, we made adjustments, allowing us to quickly step up our political work among students and in the varied campaigns and movements. But the US SWP refused to face facts, persisted in their turn, even “deepening” it, rolling it out again and again. That’s not the only factor contributing to the degeneration of the US SWP, but it was a major contribution – their refusal to face facts, and all the political distortions that flowed from that.[xii]

Now there’s another tactic-become-strategy debacle, the “broad party” strategy, which has destroyed the DSP, disoriented the FI and damaged or smashed a number of revolutionary parties around the world.

Misapplying Marx, Engels and Lenin on ‘broad parties’

Often those opting for the “broad party” strategy as a permanent retreat from a revolutionary perspective would still like to cling to some semblance of orthodoxy, claiming to be in the real tradition of Marx or Lenin, for example. And it is possible to find in the statements and writings of Lenin and Marx quotations that can be applied to these retreats, as justifying them, but you’re actually arguing for the opposite of what Marx and Lenin struggled for all their lives.

There is a tendency to elevate the question of the mass base over the question of program and leadership, rather than comprehending the dialectical links of the two. The “broad party” advocates come out with platitudes that appeal to liberals: “doing vs. words”, etc. They don’t understand, or deliberately forget, the actual experience of the Marxist movement in Marx and Engels’ time, or Lenin’s.

Sometimes in debates among revolutionaries, those starting to move away from defending a revolutionary party perspective will tend to reject Lenin first, arguing that Leninism led to Stalinism (sometimes via “Zinovievism”), or that Russian conditions were very specific and the Bolshevik party model isn’t applicable in any other situations. Often in their retreat from revolution they’ll argue for an organisational solution such as a “broad party”, an “all-inclusive party” or a “pluralist party” as the road to the masses, before admitting to themselves that such a party would necessarily have a non-revolutionary program and that they have moved away from a revolutionary perspective.

Sometimes these comrades will try to make a case for “returning to the party-building approach of Marx and Engels”, but usually without any understanding of what Marx and Engels actually stood for.

Throughout their life Marx and Engels were very clear on the need for a specific working class party, with a revolutionary program, rather than an all-inclusive party. For example, in 1882 Engels gave his support to Guesde and the left wing minority when they walked out of the French Workers Party, which split into a Guesdist and a “possibilist,” i.e. reformist, party. Engels described this separation of “incompatible elements” as “inevitable” and “good”.

“If, like the possibilists, you created a party without a program, which anyone can join, then it isn’t a party any more”, Engels argued. “To be for a moment in a minority with a correct program…is still better than to have a big but thereby almost nominal semblance of a following.” [xiii]

The call for “left unity” has become a permanent rallying cry for some on this track. In Australia, this comes from the group who forced out all other groups from the Socialist Alliance, alienated most of the active independents, then expelled us, the minority that formed the RSP. Hardly an advertisement for unity!

As for unity, broadness at any cost, this is what Engels had to say:

One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for “unity”. Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot… For this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters.[xiv]

As for being satisfied with a less than revolutionary program, Marx and Engels were scathingly sarcastic in this letter. The target of their polemic advocated transforming the German Social-Democratic party from a revolutionary to a reformist program.

Let no one misunderstand us [they paraphrased]; we don’t want “to relinquish our party and our programme but in our opinion we shall have enough to do for years to come if we concentrate our whole strength, our entire energies, on the attainment of certain immediate objectives which must in any case be won before there can be any thought of realising more ambitious aspirations.”

Then, too, the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and workers, who “are now scared off…by ambitious demands”, will join us en masse.

The programme is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed – for some unspecified period. They accept it – not for themselves in their own lifetime but posthumously, as an heirloom for their children and their children’s children. Meanwhile they devote their “whole strength and energies” to all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie.[xv]

And Engels again:

Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one’s life long against the alleged socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.[xvi]

And as Lenin wrote:

Unity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists, and opponents and distorters of Marxism.[xvii]

Not ripe for a revolutionary party?

James P. Cannon noted this tendency of those retreating from the perspective of building a revolutionary party to try going back to Engels. In a letter to Vincent R. Dunne, he wrote:

It seems that all the ex-revolutionists, reformed Trotskyists, backsliders and runaways are leaning on Engels. They didn’t get their impulse to capitulate from him; that originated in their own bones, and they are seeking corroboration from Engels after the fact.

They claim his support for their contention – the one thing they all agree on – that it is wrong to try to create a revolutionary party under the present conditions when the number of conscious revolutionists is so limited. This, they all say, is sectarian – not merely the policy and practice of such a party, but a small party’s claim of the right to exist, regardless of its aims and actions…

But when I enter the controversy around Engels’s letters, I am not going to limit myself to the question of sectarianism. The real issue, as it is evolving, is the attempt to use the authority of Engels to liquidate the conception of a party of socialists, based on a definite program – a party which under present conditions can only be a small one – in favor of some prospective “big” party, to be constructed some time in the future by some people whose names and addresses are unknown, as a result of further development of the spontaneous process. That is dead wrong because the very idea of a party – large or small – presupposes a program and therefore consciousness…

If one merely wants a “big” party, just to have a party, then any kind of a party will do; but nothing less than a Bolshevik party is good enough for war and revolution. That, I think, is the conclusive verdict of historical experience. Moreover, the construction of such a party cannot be postponed until everybody recognizes its necessity. The project has to be started by those who are ready, willing and able. That’s the way it was done in Russia, and nobody has yet discovered a better way.[xviii]

The ‘broad party’ push internationally

In response to the general political conditions outlined above, the idea of developing a broad anti-capitalist or anti-neoliberal party was a tactic that was considered by Marxists in many advanced capitalist countries over the past decade or two. Where the workers’ movement and explicit Marxist parties were weak, it was seen as a tactic that could take advantage of changing circumstances, respond to upsurges and benefit from the further exposure of the old misleaders of the workers’ movement. This was certainly the case among the international left that we were most in contact with, especially the Fourth International. In Britain and Europe there has been intense discussion and thinking out and testing of this tactic.

The FI, especially in Europe where they were strongest, adopted the approach of attempting to build anti-capitalist parties, and many FI sections have had varied experiences with this tactic. The FI’s 1995 World Congress adopted a document on “Building the International Today” with a perspective of regroupment and “mutation” of its historic basis.[xix]

In a report by François Vercammen presented to the FI’s February 2003 World Congress the approach was described: “For almost ten years, the Fourth International has worked with other currents of the non-sectarian radical left, for a broad and pluralist anti-capitalist regrouping in order to beat the hegemony of the social-liberal left.”[xx] The document on the “Role and tasks of the Fourth International” defended a goal of forming broad, pluralistic, anti-capitalist parties.[xxi]

The results have been quite varied, naturally very dependent on the particular political conditions and possibilities in each country. But the individual tactics have been interwoven with a desire to work out a European-wide approach, and the whole question of the increasing integration of capitalist Europe, and the question of building a European Left Party. Also there is the pressure of the FI searching for a new meaning for the FI itself, and the general danger that has beset the FI in the past – the tendency to convert a tactic into an overall strategy.

One of the negative sides of “internationals” such as the Fourth International and the International Socialist Tendency led by the UK SWP and the Committee for a Workers International led by the Socialist Party in Britain, is that there is a tendency to generalise tactics.[xxii] In the case of “internationals” directed by a mother party, often British in the case of Trotskyist internationals, usually the tactical changes that are determined on the basis of British conditions and experiences are generalised and applied to their offspring parties in other countries, often in quite different conditions, and without taking proper account of the actual situation.

The FI adopted a perspective of building anti-capitalist parties in Europe and other countries. Even though the DSP was not part of any formed “international”, we followed international events closely, looking for ideas. But the adoption of “broad party” or “anti-capitalist party” perspectives was generalised, certainly for parties which were part of internationals. The DSP majority leadership also adopted this as a general strategic perspective, despite the differences from country to country, despite the failure of the class struggle to advance and despite the clear failure of the Socialist Alliance here. But most of these broad party efforts have failed.

On top of the overall problems of internationals and the FI, the contradictions of the “building anti-capitalist parties” line are unravelling. The main document drafted for the FI’s World Congress in February 2010, “The Role and Tasks of the FI”, reiterates the “broad anti-capitalist parties” line:

The common goal, via different paths, is that of broad anti-capitalist parties. It is not a question of taking up the old formulas of regroupment of revolutionary currents alone. The ambition is to bring together forces beyond simply revolutionary ones. These can be a support in the process of bringing forces together as long as they are clearly for building anti-capitalist parties. Although there is no model, since each process of coming together takes account of national specificities and relationships of forces, our goal must thus be to seek to build broad anti-capitalist political forces, independent of social democracy and the centre left, formations which reject any policy of participation or support to class-collaborationist governments, today government with social-democracy and the centre left.[xxiii]

The critique by one of the German FI groups made a lot of sense:

We think there cannot be a single tactic for building a revolutionary organisation. Yet the text in discussion suggests that there can be a universal building line, although situations in countries may be very different and although most of the sections cannot apply the tactic of regroupment with other forces and still less apply the line of building a broad organisation. Thus “broad parties” cannot be the universal goal in building our organisations…

We have to draw up a frank balance sheet of our work in “broad parties” because in various countries the formation of “broad parties” has met with failure. In Italy the PRC has taken a steady rightward course. In Brazil, the “broad party” project, PT, which even seemed anticapitalist at its beginnings has evolved towards a neoliberal project.

Behind the anti-neoliberal party/anticapitalist party debate, we can discern the older debate opposing reformist party and revolutionary party. One of the key points is the attitude towards the bourgeois state apparatus.

“We do not consider it useful to apply a universal tactic for the building of ‘broad’ parties, ‘anti-neoliberal’ parties or ‘anti-capitalist’ parties”, they concluded.

Often such tactics get blown up into strategies, which – in the best of cases – prove to be mere chimeras when confronted with the reality of concrete traditions, evolutions and perspectives of the actual workers’ movement in different countries. In the worst cases, schemas are imposed on sections, causing them quite a few problems. We are not opposed in principle to similar tactics or those of the same kind on the international level, but we see them as useful only in the context of an international upturn in workers’ struggles, for example as in the years 1917-23, 1934-37, 1968-1974/75. During defensive periods, the differences between workers’ movements in their respective countries are much starker, so it is much harder to apply a common tactic.[xxiv]

Warnings and dangers

My international report to the January 2001 DSP congress had assessed this push and recognised some of the negative sides of the renewal processes and the interest in broad pluralist parties:

What sort of socialist renewal and regroupment is possible around the world? What sort of party is needed? Can it just be on a broad anti-capitalist basis? Or do we need revolutionary Marxist parties right away?

Perhaps it depends on each country. There are varied social circumstances, and very different political situations. Movements and parties are at different stages of development, and have different political heritages. We can’t be too prescriptive on this.

Some countries will need a broad, anti-capitalist regroupment, with the revolutionary Marxist forces just functioning as a current within the broader movement. Sometimes revolutionary Marxists will be able to lead the regroupment, as in the Scottish Socialist Party. Sometimes the revolutionaries will be in the minority. Sometimes there will be a variety of Marxist currents. Certainly there’s a need for a conscious anti-sectarian stance in order to succeed.

Also, it’s clear that we don’t need international factions, or the fake internationals with delusions of grandeur. We’ve experienced numerous actual negative effects of such internationals.

But the goal, the task, is to get to a revolutionary Marxist party, a Leninist, Bolshevik party. Without it, a revolution won’t succeed.

So we shouldn’t make a virtue, or necessity, out of a temporary, partial step or stage.

Similarly, we shouldn’t make a principle of a retreat, a lesser form of organisation that has to be accepted because of political and organisational weakness.

For example, the idea of the “pluralist left”, that’s emerged in some places as the description of the virtuous types of parties, the only acceptable parties.

Certainly, we’re all for the right of tendency, the importance of discussion and debate. But unfortunately some have interpreted this to be the most important defining principle of a party, and made a principle of being anti-democratic centralism, anti-Leninist. They rule out a Leninist type party, in reaction to the crimes of Stalinism and to the narrow sectarianism of much of the Trotskyist movement.

This can lead to a slide to the right, a slide to a social democratic political position, and a retreat from the party-building project altogether.

So what have been the results of the “broad party” strategy internationally?

There have been some absolute disasters – in Brazil, Italy, Scotland, repeated failures as in England, and now a debacle in France. In some places such as Portugal and Denmark, the revolutionary Marxists seem to have been able to handle the tactic sensibly so far, and in Greece Syriza has functioned successfully as a broad party that in a period of crisis and upsurge can unite both reformist and revolutionary organisations in struggle. But in many places the strategy has been pursued to the detriment of building a revolutionary Marxist party.

Scottish disaster

In Scotland the split and dramatic decline in electoral support suffered by the Scottish Socialist Party has been disastrous. Many on the left in Britain and around the world had been looking at the SSP experience with hope. Phil Hearse put it like this:

In Scotland, where the relationship of forces is much more advanced than in the rest of Britain, intermediate steps towards the resolution of the question of the political representation of the working class are immediately possible. The SSP cannot immediately be a mass party, but it can have an echo in sections of the masses and be looked to as a real potential mass leadership by sections of the workers and youth.[xxv]

But now those possibilities have disappeared. The SSP went from having six members of the Scottish Parliament in 2003 to zero in 2007. Its vote dropped from 6.7 percent to 0.66 percent.

The SSP shipwreck was especially relevant for the DSP, since the SSP had been our inspiration, our model, for the Socialist Alliance here. Of course, we’d always made the qualification that conditions were different, and we were “not following recipe books”. But we were looking to the SSP for ideas, we were hoping to follow in their footsteps, even to the extent of leading comrades asking, in formal reports, “Who can be our Tommy Sheridan?”

But following the SSP disaster there was no discussion in DSP bodies trying to analyse what went wrong and draw some lessons for our Socialist Alliance course. We’d had DSP comrades working in the SSP for many years, and comrades had frequently visited Scotland and observed their conferences. So a political assessment would have been possible, and necessary, given the weight the DSP had put on the SSP successes.

There has not been much published analysing the cause of the crisis by the SSP leadership themselves. An article by central SSP leader Alan McCombes, “The day Scotland’s rainbow parliament turned grey”, analyses the “massacre for the left” at the election as partly due to the squeeze on voters, seeing a vital choice between the Scottish National Party and the British Labour Party, as well as the huge number of disqualified votes adversely affecting working class voters, and thus the SSP (over 140,000 or 7 percent of the total cast).[xxvi]

But so far there does not seem to have been a deep analysis of how the SSP was brought down and what could have been done to prevent it. It especially brings into question the wisdom of scrapping the Marxist core organisation within the SSP, the International Socialist Movement that initially organised the central Marxist leaders, who came from Scottish Militant Labour, the CWI group.

There are many functions of such a Marxist core within a broad left party. One would be to impose a certain discipline on leading comrades. But there was an even more fundamental problem that was not being addressed in the SSP with only a partially functioning Marxist core group, and was not addressed at all when the ISM dissolved, and that’s the problem of the regeneration of Marxist cadres. The SSP was developing a broader base and getting recognition and winning votes, but the big problem was that this was nearly all done on the backs of cadres who had been recruited and trained in the previous Marxist cadre parties, primarily Scottish Militant Labour. This was a problem that the SSP leaders admitted to us when we visited there. It was a problem that our own comrades who were working in Scotland could clearly identify.

In 2004, for example, only a handful of SSP members would sell the SSP paper Scottish Socialist Voice outside of the original core of cadres who had been trained in Militant. The SSP youth did start to develop and train some new cadres, but it was a fairly slow process, and small numbers compared to the weight of the SSP itself.

Another way this problem appeared was in the literature available – or not available – in their office and on their bookstalls. At one stage we offered to make available bulk copies of the DSP Marxist classics and reprints and all our books on complete credit, but they declined the offer. I got the impression they felt our range of books and pamphlets would detract from their “broadness”. I don’t think much was happening in the way of Marxist education.

Some of the central leaders of the SSP had come to the view that the Marxist core group was no longer needed, that the broad, pluralist, socialist party they were building and were at the helm of was the only body to build. New SSP activists came to consciously reject the idea of a Leninist cadre party. Certainly this became the view of one of the SSP leaders, Murray Smith, who returned to live in France and was on the National Committee of the French LCR. Murray Smith had developed the view that the revolutionary Marxists should not organise separately, that a Leninist party was old hat, and he supported the minority in the LCR that wanted broad unity.

English efforts

The various efforts at building a broad party to the left of Labour in England had neither the success nor the potential of the SSP in Scotland. Objectively, the more militant tradition within the Scottish working class meant the SSP had a better chance, and, subjectively, the dominance on the left of the majority of Scottish Militant Labour and their willingness to break with their London head office meant there were the forces willing to give a broad party a try.

As Phil Hearse and Liam Mac Uaid pointed out in 2007 in their assessment of the break-up of Respect:

Respect is the third major attempt to build a united left formation in the last 15 years – preceded by the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) launched by Arthur Scargill in 1994 and the Socialist Alliance refounded at the beginning of this decade. The SLP foundered on Scargill’s insistence on his own bureaucratic control and the Socialist Alliance’s potential was far from maximised: indeed the SWP’s decision to sideline the SA during the height of the anti-war movement effectively sealed its fate.[xxvii]

Once the SWP moved into the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party/CWI moved out. (This move was the change of line of the SWP towards participation in elections that signalled to the DSP that a Socialist Alliance with the ISO might be possible.) First the SP, then the SWP, dominated, then abandoned the Socialist Alliance, with only a husk remaining. Socialist Alternative assessed it correctly at the time:

Socialist Alliance in England had little political traction. It neither pulled in sizeable new forces nor mobilised significant voter support. But the SWP, holding fast to its ‘1930s in slow motion’ analysis, continued to believe that a significant space had opened up to the left of Labour that they could tap. So they ditched Socialist Alliance and moved on to their next get rich quick scheme – Respect.[xxviii]

Four years ago we saw the bitter split and destruction of Respect. It never had the broad base established by the SSP at its height. And it always lacked the democratic structures for inclusion of different currents, and structures to guarantee accountability. It began essentially as an alliance between the SWP, the expelled Labour MP George Galloway, anti-war activists and sections of the Muslim community in East London and Birmingham. This alliance spectacularly came apart. Galloway has recently been elected in the name of Respect, but nobody would claim that it’s a healthy broad party.

There are lots of lessons from that Respect split – not necessarily new insights, but reinforcement of old lessons. There are certainly more lessons here about the “star” problem and accountability and democratic functioning. Galloway was never under any democratic control. An embarrassing display on “Big Brother” was undertaken without any discussion in Respect. Galloway kept all the quite substantial MP’s salary for himself. While they were in alliance with Galloway, the SWP defended all this, making many errors and losing authority and members.

The next largest Marxist group, the Socialist Party (CWI), had its own broad party project, the “Campaign for a New Workers Party” (CNWP) and was pushing to continue the No2EU campaign that stood in the 2009 European elections. This coalition also included the Communist Party of Britain and the Alliance for Green Socialism and was supported by Bob Crow (general secretary Rail, Maritime and Transport), Brian Caton (general secretary Prison Officers’ Association) and some other union officials.

So we ended up with the different Marxist groups in Britain, each with their own blueprint for the “new broad party”, usually around themselves.

An article by Andrew Johnson on the website of Socialist Democracy, the Irish FI group, analysed this dilemma in May 2005, and drew some conclusions:

The SA failed because it never agreed what it was for. Based on a prediction that there would be an exodus from the Labour left, this alliance, composed 95% of revolutionaries, restricted itself to a very mild reformist programme. The exodus never materialized…

The failure of the SA demonstrates the fallacy of the “vacuum on the left” theory championed for decades by the SWP and more recently by the SP. This theory posits a static and passive constituency to the left of social democracy which simply has to be appealed to. This inevitably leads Marxists into not only an electoralist strategy, but a strategy based on occupying a reformist space that the Blairites have abandoned. Therefore the revolutionaries end up putting forward a programme to the right of the old reformist politics! [xxix]

Defeats in Brazil and Italy

At the outset, the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) was seen as a “broad party” project by revolutionaries who got involved, including the FI. The Brazilian FI forces were quite large and initially grew from their intervention in the PT. It might have seemed an anti-capitalist party at the start, led by former metalworker Lula, but in government it was very clearly implementing neoliberal policies, governing in the interests of the local ruling class and imperialism.

This led to a major split in the FI forces. The majority are still part of the PT government and have continued to go along with Lula’s neoliberal policies, taking ministerial posts, implementing austerity policies, attacking workers’ pensions. The minority led by Heloísa Helena left the PT, and with other groups formed a new coalition, the Socialism and Freedom Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, P-SOL). This entry into a “broad party” has resulted in the absorption and capitulation of the majority of the FI forces. The tactic became the strategy, with disastrous results. What tactic they should have pursued – quit the government, denounce Lula’s rightward evolution, quit the PT – is not for us to say, but it is clear that by staying allied with Lula they are relinquishing their revolutionary principles.

It is a big embarrassment for the FI, and they have recognised it as a disaster. British FI leader Dave Packer (who died in July 2012) wrote: “We should also learn the lessons from the crisis of our Brazilian section, its gradual regionalisation and decay inside the Workers Party (PT), its co-option into the local state in some regions with well paid jobs, and presently its continued participation in a neo-liberal bourgeois government.”[xxx]

In Italy, the FI comrades in the Communist Refoundation Party (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, PRC) were probably silent for too long as the PRC went to the right, became part of Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition government, supporting the war in Afghanistan and supporting the expansion of the US base in Vicenza.

The PRC had been the regrouping of the left of the old CP, which had majority support among Italy’s workers. The PCI was a right wing communist party, and moved further to the right, abandoning even any profession of communism. The PRC regroupment had different currents and allowed the involvement of the various revolutionary groups, including the Trotskyists. The Italian FI group Bandiera Rossa joined and was able to win more supporters around its caucus, Sinistra Critica (Critical Left). As part of the PRC, they won one senator and one comrade in the lower house.

But as the Prodi government insisted on and speeded up its right wing course, the PRC leadership of Fausto Bertinotti went along with it, and the comrades in Critical Left were slow to criticise and slow to break.

It’s not a very positive example for the “broad party” strategy. The Italian working class is weaker, the left further divided and dwindling.

The NPA in France – a gamble lost

The creation of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) by the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) in France had better chances than many other efforts at broad parties. The LCR comrades had some basis for the gamble of dissolving the LCR and forming the NPA: it was on the basis of real revolutionary traditions; it came on the back of a real political upsurge in France; and there were real forces around them – thousands of newly activated supporters – to be consolidated in a new party.

We had been critical of other “broad” anti-capitalist party efforts, but were willing to give the NPA a chance. But once again, unfortunately, it has been a failure. A detailed article needs to come to grips with the reasons for this failure, including thorough assessments by revolutionaries in France themselves, which have not been forthcoming yet.[xxxi] But clearly the gamble has failed.

The strongest proponents of the “broad party” strategy in the LCR actually opposed the NPA course. They wanted a broader unity that made more compromises, and many of them left before the NPA was formed in January 2009. They are now part of the Front de Gauche (Left Front) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (until 2008 in the Socialist Party), dominated by a revived French Communist Party and others willing to contemplate local and national government fronts with the Socialist Party.

What was the background to the gamble? Olivier Besancenot’s campaign for the 2007 French presidential elections had huge meetings, at least double the size of previous LCR election meetings, including big turnouts in traditional PCF working class regions. Four thousand came to the LCR’s final campaign meeting in Paris.[xxxii] During the campaign 2,000 people applied to join the LCR. This comes on top of the LCR growing from 1,000 to 3,000 from its successful political organising and election campaigns in recent years.

The LCR minority, including Murray Smith, insisting on a broader unitary campaign at any cost, ended up in a terrible predicament. Smith is in the framework where he thinks broad left parties are universally the way to go, whatever the situation.[xxxiii] Many of them supported the José Bové campaign rather than the LCR Besancenot campaign!

The majority line was proved in practice, with exciting election results and thousands of new supporters. After their electoral success, the LCR majority leadership were in a strong position and confident enough to propose a tactical move that might maximise their gains and consolidate their new, bigger base. They proposed to launch a new party – around themselves, and with their clear principled politics – the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA).

But the gamble has failed. The NPA has been rent by division and lack of agreement on perspective. It has been bypassed by the Left Front of Mélenchon, and its electoral results have been dismal. Most of the new, younger adherents have gone elsewhere or drifted away demoralised. The NPA situation is a mess, seen as a “disaster” by many of the older LCR leaders and other FI leaders in Europe.

Was it a problem of exaggerated expectations? Or a problem of not keeping the revolutionary Marxist core? Or perhaps some comrades might now be thinking there is something flawed with the whole “broad left party” perspective.

Portugal, Denmark and Germany

Proponents of the “broad party” strategy will admit the disasters for the perspective in Brazil, Italy, Scotland and England, and now France, but feel a lot more confident about progress in Portugal, Denmark and Germany.

In Portugal and Denmark the FI groups have been involved in fairly stable, successful left alliances – the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, and the Left Bloc in Portugal.

Both alliances have been able to involve several small parties, with no party playing an overwhelmingly dominant role, stifling the other groups. The Marxist parties that are involved in these alliances have not completely submerged their own parties. The FI groups, for example, still find their own groups necessary for cadre development and for Marxist education. The component groups can still have their own publications.

The Left Bloc in Portugal was formed in 1998 with the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the section of the Fourth International in Portugal, a party of former Maoists and a section of the Portuguese Communist Party, together with a number of independent socialists.

In the Portuguese elections of September 2009 the Left Bloc increased its vote from 6 percent to nearly 10 percent and doubled its representation in the assembly from eight to 16 members, but in June 2011 was back to 5.2 percent and eight seats.

In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) was formed in 1989 by three left wing parties: the Left Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Denmark and the Socialist Workers Party, the Danish FI group. Others join as independent socialists, and they claim there are a majority of members now not in any of the constituent parties, but the original parties still retain their existence.

In September 2011 the RGA jumped from four to 12 seats in parliament, winning 6.7 percent of the vote. They claim 8,000 members, and at the conference in May 2012, polls indicated support had risen to 11 percent. But they were evenly divided over endorsing the vote of the party’s MPs in favour of Danish support for the UN-NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.

Proponents of the “broad party” approach also approvingly cite Die Linke (The Left) in Germany. In general it is a positive step, but poses a number of tricky questions for German Marxists, including the question of coalition governments with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Die Linke was founded in 2007 by the merger of the progressive remnants of the old ruling Socialist Equality Party of East Germany (Party of Democratic Socialism) with the Labour and Social Justice – the Electoral Alternative (WASG), a left split from social democracy led by former SPD president Oskar Lafontaine. In the 27 September 2009 elections, the SPD vote collapsed, while Die Linke registered 11.9 percent, 3.2 percentage points more than in the previous election. The party now has 76 members in the Bundestag, up from 54. In most parts of the former East Germany, Die Linke is now the largest party.

It’s probably tactically correct to enter Die Linke, as many of the Trotskyist groups have done – the IST supporters, the CWI group and one of the FI groups, the International Socialist Left (ISL). The Revolutionary Socialist League (RSB), the other FI group, has remained outside, which is probably a mistake, but its document for the FI’s World Congress makes a number of sharp points, including a basic reminder that the ultimate goal is a revolutionary party, something that can be neglected in entries.

And Syriza in Greece – a positive example

In Greece the broad left electoral alliance Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, has had spectacular success in mobilising and winning the support of workers, pensioners and youth suffering from the EU-imposed austerity, a catastrophic assault on their living standards.

This catastrophe has resulted in Greek workers and pensioners, already on some of the lowest wages and social security entitlements in Europe, see their wages and payments directly cut by as much as 40% over the last few years. The “debt crisis” which this austerity is supposed to pay for is of course the debt accumulated by their capitalist class enemies and the endemically corrupt state under its twin dinosaur parties of austerity, New Democracy, the major party of the capitalist class, and the one-time vaguely social-democratic PASOK party. [xxxiv]

Syriza was formed in 2004 by pulling together a number of the far left groups around Synapsismos, itself a “broad” left social democratic group. In the 6 May 2012 election, the first opportunity that Greek voters were given to vote on the pro-austerity “memorandum”, Syriza’s vote surged from 4.6 percent in 2009 to 16.8 percent. On June 17 in the follow-up election, it soared to 27 percent.

Syriza’s success was based on its close involvement in the mobilisations, its intransigent opposition to austerity and its call for a “government of the left”. Unfortunately, the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece, maintained a totally sectarian stand, its vote dropping from 8.5 percent in the 6 May election to 4.5 percent on 17 June, reflecting the refusal of the KKE leadership to orient towards seeking united action with Syriza against the pro-austerity memorandum.

Another left alliance, Antarsya (Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left), which got less than 1 percent in June, united about ten other revolutionary groups that refused to get behind Syriza.

There was a Maoist group in each coalition, a group supporting the FI in each, one in Syriza close to the US ISO and a group in Antarsya close to the British SWP.

The key factor in Greece was that workers were radicalising in opposition to the bosses’ crisis and their imposed austerity, with big sections looking to Syriza (which by June had a lead among voters aged 18-34). As the editorial “A new kind of left unity” in the November 2012 issue of Socialist Alternative magazine pointed out:

In certain countries – Greece is the most obvious – there is a serious space for revolutionaries to contribute to the construction of mass workers’ parties that can cohere the working class as a whole, or at least serious sections of the class. In those situations, it would be mad for revolutionaries to counterpose their own organisations to the mass of radicalising workers.[xxxv]

Some other experiences

First of all, as noted above, unless you are hegemonic on the left, alliances and questions of unity are going to be issues raised regularly, but will be addressed in many different forms. Secondly, the types of alliances and fronts required in neo-colonial countries will be different than in imperialist countries – fronts for democracy, or national liberation, will be central. Thirdly, a basic lesson that revolutionaries absorb is that you don’t hide or immerse your revolutionary Marxist forces without good reason – such as the need to develop a viable political front, or the need to defend yourself against state repression and victimisation – but you don’t go underground unless it’s necessary.

In India the CPI (ML) Liberation suffered a small split by a current in Uttar Pradesh that wanted the party to step back from functioning as a communist party and instead set up a broad democratic front, to try to improve its acceptance among “democratic forces”. The party leadership characterised this perspective as “liquidationist”.[xxxvi] What were the origins and base of this liquidationist trend? Perhaps frustration at difficulties in winning parliamentary representation, and overweighting the importance of parliament for building a revolutionary party. The CPI (ML) is a party that tries to combine all forms of struggle, combining the parliamentary with the extra-parliamentary, while keeping the former subordinated to the latter. This frustration can lead to a search for shortcuts, and seeking to water down the presentation of the party’s politics as a substitute for building support.

A similar phenomenon occurred in Lalit, in Mauritius. There was a split over issues similar to those that led to our expulsion from the DSP, only there the group making a fetish of the “broad party” was in a minority and left.

The dynamic towards “broad parties” has not been the same in underdeveloped countries. However, unfortunately, some parties in Third World countries made the mistake of following too closely what was happening in a party in an imperialist country. The extreme rightward course of the Indonesian PRD (People’s Democratic Party) in recent years can partly be blamed on the DSP; the push for a “broad party” was followed slavishly, with disastrous results.

The Socialist Workers group in New Zealand took up the “broad party” line most uncritically and enthusiastically, and implemented it in a crude, right wing fashion. For a while they operated through RAM, the Residents’ Action Movement. Based in Auckland, RAM drew in social liberals, former National Party members, social democrats, with the SW group leading it, and had respectable election results in 2004 and 2007. But since then the pathetic results nationally have been no better, sometimes worse, than openly socialist groups, and they dissolved RAM in 2010. Sadly, it seemed they’d also taken some cues from the DSP majority in Australia. It wasn’t even a broad socialist approach, but a populist appeal to “residents”, or “the grassroots”.[xxxvii] Then they put their focus on a campaign against the “bad banks”, stooping to a nationalist low by campaigning against “Aussie-owned” banks! Now it seems the group is dispersed.

One “successful” example of a broad party that developed “mass” support became something very different from what their originators might have started out as. The Dutch Socialist Party (“Tomato Party”) was founded in 1972 by Maoists, but long ago eliminated all traces of Marxism and minimised ideology to project a broad, bland appeal. It focused on local issues, and electoral support has gradually grown. Most of the far left groups have now joined the SP. But the party has no revolutionary socialist element left, not much of socialism and hardly any sense of activism. Even winning high levels of support, even getting members elected, what’s it for? Some, including some in the Socialist Alliance, think this is the way to go. But it’s not a revolutionary project, or even a centrist perspective; it’s a social democratic project from the beginning.[xxxviii]

Lessons, and the range of dangers

In December 2004, François Sabado, the pen name of a central leader of the LCR and of the FI, wrote a very perceptive article contributing to a debate on “Building broad anti-capitalist parties – a necessary step” that included Alex Callinicos of the British SWP, Murray Smith and Alan Thornett, a leader of the British FI group.

Sabado warned against many of the dangers and dead-ends of the “broad party” perspective. We printed Sabado’s article in the Activist in 2004, and during the pre-conference discussion in 2007 we referred to it again, pointing out that these were “wise words ignored” by the DSP leadership.

This new party will not be established by decree, he wrote.

It should result from a whole process of political experiences marked by events or the convergence of significant forces which create the conditions for a reorganization of the workers’ movement and the construction of a new party. In Scotland, it is the specific combination of the social question and the national question which has made possible the emergence of the SSP. In Portugal, it is the convergence of several currents originating in the CP, the UDP (ex-Maoist), the PSR (section of the Fourth International) and independent personalities which has given birth to the Left Bloc…

And this pursuit of the construction of a revolutionary leadership through a broad party in unfinished contours can only be done if the new party is much broader, much more extensive than the revolutionary organization. If the conditions of a real transcendence of the revolutionary organization do not exist, if the forms of a new force are less significant than those of the revolutionary organization, and we hurry the rhythms and modalities of construction of such a party, we lose in substance – programme, history, and revolutionary experience – without gaining in political and organizational breadth. Thus, inasmuch as the conditions for a broad party do not exist, the accumulation of forces for a revolutionary leadership in the broad sense is done essentially through the construction of the revolutionary organization and by initiatives favouring the conditions for this new party, rather than by the proclamation of a new force on the cheap.[xxxix]

The comrade should have been even sharper, and I’m sure would have liked to have been able to avoid the gamble, and not got embroiled in the NPA mess.

All the recent experiences internationally of broad parties seem to reconfirm the old lessons:

1. Whether such a broad party is likely to succeed, and whether it is wise to launch one, depends on the political situation. It depends on leftward-moving forces, a political upsurge, forces that could break to the left from reformist parties. In times of political downturn and retreat, it is not a wise tactic.

2. Such a tactic depends on having real forces to sustain it, enough revolutionary cadres from one or more Marxist organisations. Just running up a new flag in that space won’t be enough. And if it continues for any length of time, you’ll need ways to recruit and train new cadre.

3. The politics of the unity or broad party does matter. It needs a class-struggle, anti-capitalist program – anything less and you might as well just join the old social democrats.

Many of the European examples of the “broad party tactic” were probably worth giving a go – alliances, blocs, electoral alliances, entering in broad left parties. But there is no easy path, no necessary tactic. And we also have to be aware of the dangers of the tactic that many of the recent experiences with broad parties seem to point to: the danger of getting stuck in a permanent half-way house; the danger of degeneration onto an anti-Leninist path; the danger of substituting for and masquerading as the broad party.

Stuck in a halfway house

Revolutionary Marxists need the flexibility to try different tactics to win broader support, but there’s no virtue in sticking with a failed course. We shouldn’t get stuck on a “broad party” or unity initiative that is not working. Even worse, we shouldn’t try to justify theoretically a failed tactic, to convert it from a tactic to a permanent strategy.

Doggedness can sometimes be a virtue, but on a wrong course it’s just stupidity.

In the difficult political situation of the last decade, some revolutionary Marxists internationally have generalised too far. They had adopted the “broad party” tactic as already more than a tactic, as a principle for all times and situations. The DSP majority leadership backed itself into a corner, defending the “Socialist Alliance as the party we build” tactic come what may, and in 2010 dissolved the DSP.

Another problem when a tactic gets elevated to a permanent principle is that you become blinded to the possibilities of other tactical opportunities that might open up. You miss new chances through being stuck with old tactics. For all the hype about the Socialist Alliance line opening up these broad contacts and support, an objective comparison would show that the DSP had more contacts, more Green Left Weekly sales and subscriptions, more contacts at GLW dinners, more comrades involved in campaigns and committees in the years before donning the Socialist Alliance mask.

Conditions that would allow building the Socialist Alliance as a broad socialist party do not exist; the project has clearly failed. The majority leadership in the DSP had invested a lot of energy and hope in the effort to build the Socialist Alliance. It proved too difficult to abandon, or to change course when that was needed. So a further change in the explanation, the rationale for Socialist Alliance developed.

The “any party worth its salt” justification was coined – that revolutionary Marxist parties always need a halfway house in order to be able to attract workers:

Any revolutionary party worth its salt has to chart a course of both recruiting directly to itself, as well as an orientation that can win people who are looking for a political alternative to Labor (and in some cases the Greens, for disenchanted Greens members) to a class struggle workers’ party, even if it is not yet revolutionary.[xl]

There is a danger that many little halfway houses get established, fail to fulfil their hopes of winning the masses and remain dotted around like gravestones, obstacles to real developments towards building revolutionary workers’ parties with a base in the class.

In France the remnants of the unitary campaign around José Bové played that role: a clear obstacle, but soaking up Marxists who turned the broad party tactic into a principle.

In Britain there are several stagnant remnants scattered around – Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party; the Socialist Alliance; and Respect looks like another.

In Australia the Progressive Labor Party is a skeleton, but still outpolled the Socialist Alliance in Newcastle. The Search Foundation is the holder of the assets of the old Communist Party, which had a brief last gasp as the Broad Left Party. The Socialist Alliance, formerly the DSP, risks ending up another such ghostly shadow, sustained by the assets of its former activists.

Giving up on Leninist parties

The major danger of the “broad party” perspective is that you can drift into giving up on the very idea of a Leninist party.

Some on the left had drawn false conclusions about the place for Leninist parties in the struggle today – regarding them as outdated, or an obstacle. Some adopted this position on their path out of the movement, arguing that democratic centralism as an organising principle was positively harmful. Some have theorised their opposition to vanguard parties, Leninism, as a result of the problems they encountered in sectarian Trotskyist parties. (For example, some former US SWP members drew these conclusions directly from their negative experiences with the degeneration of the US SWP.)[xli]

Some would probably argue that a broad socialist party is a stepping stone in today’s conditions to building a mass revolutionary party in the future. But they have certainly rejected the idea of building a Leninist party now, or even a revolutionary caucus within the broad socialist party.

Giving up on Leninism permanently is a definite danger, as we’ve seen with some broad party developments, such as with the Dutch SP. But even when Marxists might see dissolving the Marxist core as a temporary tactic, there are some insuperable problems. For example, cadre cannot develop and be trained and educated just in the broad party. There is no democratic relationship among the revolutionary Marxists, which is essential to working out perspectives, and also for training cadres. So there’s the question of how long without a Leninist party can you survive?

The “broad party” perspective as a strategy has failed, and in no way replaces the Leninist, revolutionary Marxist party-building strategy.

The current working class retreat and low levels of struggles will not continue forever. While we cannot predict how or where a next upsurge will take place, there will be more radical upsurges. At that time, whether in the near future or further down the track, the existence of operating revolutionary cadre parties will be essential to discovering the tactics required to meet any upsurges, including whatever united front, regroupment or other unity initiatives are required.

[i] Program of the RSP/DSP, pp.63-66.

[ii] 1995 FI 14th World Congress document, “Building the International Today”, printed in the Activist, Vol.12, No.8, August 2002.

[iii] Alex Callinicos,Regroupment, Realignment, and the Revolutionary Left”. Callinicos is a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. (Printed in the first international bulletin of the SWP’s international organisation, the International Socialist Tendency, and available on their website,

[iv] The core of this article is based on a talk presented to the RSP Marxist Education conference in Sydney, 2-5 January 2010. The talk itself was based on an article “Broad party, cadre party – questions of tactics and strategy” in the Activist, internal information and discussion bulletin of the DSP, Vol.17, No.14, November 2007.

[v] Pip Hinman, “The DSP’s party building tasks and perspectives in 2001”: “We want to convince people of the need to build a revolutionary party now, and not at some unspecified time in the future when the prospects for revolution in this country look brighter.” Activist, Vol.11, No.2, Feb 2001, p.4.

[vi] Activist, Vol.11, No.4, Feb 2001.

[vii] Activist, Vol.11, No.5, May 2001: Report by John Percy on “The Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference and Our International Work”; Peter Boyle, “M1, Socialist Alliance and our Party Building Perspectives”.

[viii] “Some wild thoughts about perspectives”, letter from Peter Boyle to DSP leadership, September 2002.

[ix] Footnote on the “French Turn”, in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star, 1927-1940, 1993/trotsky4/10-frtrot.html#p3.

[x] John Percy, A history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, Vol.1, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2005, p.36.

[xi] Joseph Hansen, The Leninist Strategy of Party Building: The Debate on Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1979.

[xii] See the report on the degeneration of the US SWP by Doug Lorimer to the DSP National Committee meeting on 3 January 1984, published as the pamphlet The Making of a Sect, Pathfinder Press (Australia), Sydney, 1984.

[xiii] John Percy, Socialism: the way forward, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1997, p.26; Friedrich Engels to Eduard Bernstein, 28 November 1882, in Eduard Bernstein, Die Briefe von Friedrich Engels an Eduard Bernstein, Berlin, 1925, pp.102-3.

[xiv] Friedrich Engels, letter to August Bebel, June 20, 1873, archive/marx/works/1873/letters/73_06_20.htm.

[xv] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, circular letter to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and others, September 1879; in response to an August 1879 article written by Karl Höchberg, Eduard Bernstein and Carl August Schramm, MECW, Vol.24, p.266, 18.htm.

[xvi] Friedrich Engels, letter to August Bebel, 28 October 1882,

[xvii] Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, Vol.20, p.232; “Unity”, Put Pravdy No.59, 12 April 1914, lenin/works/1914/apr/12.htm.

[xviii] James P. Cannon to Vincent R. Dunne, “Engels on the American Question”, in Building the Revolutionary Party, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1997,

[xix] 1995 Fourth International 14th World Congress document, “Building the International Today”, printed in the Activist, Vol.12, No.8, August 2002.

[xx] Report by François Vercammen, at the time a member of the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International and of its Executive Bureau, International Viewpoint, No.349.

[xxi] “Role and tasks of the Fourth International”, 15th World Congress of the Fourth International, which took place in Belgium in February 2003.

[xxii] Analysed in my article “The Ukraine scam, internationals and internationalism”, Links 25, January-June 2004, p.81.

[xxiii] Fourth International, 16th World Congress, “Role and Tasks of the Fourth International”, 17 March 2010, article1836.

[xxiv] RSB Germany, “Towards a broad International at any price? Why we reject the ‘Role and Tasks of the FI’ draft resolution”, 14 December 2009,

[xxv] Phil Hearse, “Militant: What went wrong?”, Links 15, May-August 2000, pp.59-60,

[xxvi] Alan McCombes, “The day Scotland’s rainbow parliament turned grey”, Activist, Vol.17, No.5, July 2007, p.28, article1265.

[xxvii] Phil Hearse and Liam Mac Uaid, “How the SWP’s bureaucratic factionalism is wrecking Respect”, Activist, Vol.17, No.12, November 2007, p.42,

[xxviii] “The Respect fiasco in Britain”, com_k2&view=item&id=3932:the-respect-fiasco-in-britain&Itemid=394.

[xxix] Andrew Johnson, “The fight for a new workers’ party and unity on the left – Chapter 1, 2, 3”, 3 May 2005, OnlinePublications. htm #New%20workers%20party.

[xxx] David Packer, “Revolutionary organisation and its relationship to building a broad left party”, article1416.

[xxxi] See for a start Jason Stanley, “The NPA in Crisis”, and following comments, on US Solidarity’s website,

[xxxii] Penelope Duggan, “Olivier Besancenot holds final campaign rally”,

[xxxiii] “The radical left in Europe”, Activist, Vol.17, No.6, July 2007.

[xxxiv] Michael Karadjis, “Greece: SYRIZA, the Communist Party and the desperate need for a united front”,


[xxxvi] A thorough article on the issues and background to the dispute by CPI (ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya appeared in the September 2008 issue of Liberation,

[xxxvii] “The goal of unity is to build credible broad left parties or coalitions which win the respect of grassroots people”, said RAM/SW leader Vaughan Gunson,

[xxxviii] Max Lane, “Dutch social democracy and the recent elections”, Direct Action 40, November-December 2012.

[xxxix] François Sabado, “Political situation, anti-capitalist party and revolutionary party in Europe”, Activist, Vol.14, No.5, December 2004, http://www.internationalview spip.php?article9.

[xl] Sue Bolton, “The DSP, Socialist Alliance and rebuilding the DSP cadre”, Activist, Vol.15, No.8, October 2005.

[xli] John Percy, “Looking Backward, Looking Forward”, Links 23, 2003, pp.26-27,

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