This article was presented as part of the discussion by the CWI Scotland on our tasks in relation to building the SSP as a new socialist party. Murray Smith is a former leading member of French CWI section Gauche Revolutionnaire and a member of the CWI International Executive Committee. Murray is now resident in Scotland. This article is submitted in a personal capacity.

(The following article written by Murray Smith appeared in Carré rouge n° 11, May 1999. Carré rouge is an independent Marxist journal based in Paris and edited by François Chesnais. The article is included here because although it does not relate specifically to Scotland, it deals with some of the issues involved in the debate-MS).


by Murray Smith

Today, the idea that we need a new anti-capitalist workers’ party is more and more widely shared and discussed. And for good reason: it corresponds to the needs of a working class which is increasingly deprived of political representation. An not only in France : all over Europe we find the same debates, and initiatives which go in this direction.

The question of the building of independent workers’ parties has been posed since the beginnings of the workers’ movement in Europe. But it has not always been posed in the same way. At the time of the First and Second Internationals, it was a question of bringing together all those who were in favour of building independent organisations of the proletariat, the only significant split being with the anarchist current. The result was the appearance throughout Europe of mass workers’ parties, more or less influenced by Marxism depending on the country, bringing together different currents and trends. If these parties were not explicitly reformist, it would be inaccurate to characterise most of them as revolutionary.

It was only subsequently, under the impact of the imperialist war and the Russian Revolution, that a differentiation took place between revolutionaries and reformists, leading to the creation of the Communist International and of explicitly revolutionary parties. Following on the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and of the state which resulted from the Russian Revolution, the Trotskyist current arose in opposition to the rise of Stalinism. It would however be a mistake to reduce Trotskyism to anti-Stalinism. Trotskyism at its origin represented the continuation, on the levels of programme and of organisation, of communism, of revolutionary Marxism after the degeneration of the Communist International. Subsequently, Trotskyism would come to represent both the continuation of these gains and the development of Marxism on a series of new questions, in particular the analysis of the degeneration of the USSR and the question of bureaucracy, fascism, Popular Fronts.

From 1933 on, the Trotskyist current set itself the task of establishing new parties. It wasn’t a question of creating «Trotskyist» parties (the concept didn’t exist at the time) but of bringing together the forces within the workers’ movement which were breaking with Stalinism and Social Democracy, on the basis of platforms which enabled them to orient correctly on the big questions of a period marked by the acute reality of revolution, counter-revolution and war. The possibilities were real, the political forces existed and in the 1930s Trotsky sought with great persistence to bring about new mass revolutionary formations. But we have to recognise, without much success. Trotsky himself attributed this failure in the last analysis to objective causes, in a period marked above all by defeats (in particular in an interview with CLR James, «Fighting Against the Stream», Writings 1938-39).

A long period of isolation

Of course, even in difficult objective conditions, correct or incorrect tactics can make a difference : witness the relative success of the American Trotskyists compared to the errors and missed opportunities of the French and Spanish sections in particular. We could also discuss to what extent the errors of many Trotskyist groups during the Second World War, and the difficulties in coming to grips with the reality of the post-war world, contributed to the weakness of the movement.

What is undeniable is that the enormous strengthening of Stalinism and Social Democracy at the end of the war and during the period of post-war expansion created conditions which left the Trotskyist movement isolated for a whole period. This situation began to change only towards the end of the 60s and has only changed qualitatively in the last ten years.

From the Libération onwards, during the misnamed «Thirty Glorious Years» (1) and into the 70s and 80s, the workers’ movement in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe was structured by the two colossi of Social Democracy and Stalinism : by the parties themselves, by the unions linked to these parties, by a whole network of associations. During this whole period, the Trotskyist movement, with its different components, sought to build revolutionary parties in opposition to the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties.

Trotskyism therefore had to exist for several decades faced with powerful Stalinist and Social Democratic parties which were supported by the majority of the working class. Thus Trotskyism was obliged to function as a left opposition, to demarcate itself on the programmatic level from the reformists and the Stalinists, while at the same time seeking to address from inside or outside these parties the workers and youth who followed them. The tactics varied, there were successes : not everyone failed to the same extent. But nowhere did Trotskyists succeed in building mass revolutionary parties. Today we really have to recognise that the reasons for that were objective. To say that does not in any way acquit the different Trotskyist organisations of the responsibility for their errors, nor imply that they couldn’t have grown more. It is simply a question of understanding that all their mistakes, sectarian and opportunist, had deep objective roots in their inability to escape from the fringes of the workers’ movement.

The mass of workers had not gone through experiences which would have enabled them to break with reformism and Stalinism. The attitude of the Trotskyist movement was determined by this reality. Cut off from mass practical activity as a movement (although individual militants could sometimes have such activity), reduced to the level of propaganda groups, each current drew its legitimacy from its critique of Stalinism and Social Democracy and especially of all the other Trotskyist organisations. This demarcation had necessarily an ideological character, each current having its «shibboleth», as Marx put it, its specificity which distinguished it from all the others, which founded its legitimacy, which justified its separate existence.

Things began to change at the end of the 60s. A whole series of Trotskyist organisations succeeded in growing to a greater or lesser extent out of the radicalisation of youth, and in particular of students and school students. Some of these organisations began from the 70s onwards to have a modest but real implantation in the working class. But no organisation was able to definitively show its superiority by demonstrating its ability to build a mass revolutionary party. For a very simple and definitive reason : it was objectively impossible to build such a party during the period in question. The horizon remained blocked by the weight of the traditional parties.

The context has changed

The situation is radically different today. It is different because the two bureaucratic apparatuses which dominated the workers’ movement for decades no longer function in the same way. Their decades-long domination had material roots. These parties were associated with the gains of the post-war period and those that were obtained subsequently : nationalisations, social protection, the right to health care, education and housing, democratic rights. In short, everything that made working people’s lives in the post-war period different from what they had been before the war. Not that workers obtained these gains without a fight. The reformists have never handed out presents unless they have felt the pressure from below. But for thirty years capitalism in a period of expansion was able to make concessions in exchange for (relative) social peace. And the traditional parties were considered by workers as in a way the guarantors of what had been gained, as their parties, as useful instruments for defending themselves and improving their situation. Social Democracy was associated with the post-war conquests. And the Communist Parties were associated not only with these conquests, but with the regimes in the USSR, in Eastern Europe and in China which still exercised a force of attraction for many workers. Both continued to define socialism as the ultimate goal. The idea of achieving it by building on already existing conquests on a national and international level seemed credible.

These points are worth underlining. Workers didn’t follow these parties out of stupidity, ignorance or lack of political consciousness. They followed them because these parties represented the concretisation of a certain number of gains and the hope of real change in the interests of their class. It is important to understand that the loyalty of workers to their parties had a rational and objective basis. You only have to look for example at what were the gains of the working class under Social Democracy in Sweden or in Austria to understand that the social peace which reigned in these countries had a material basis. The relative impermeability of workers to revolutionary Marxist ideas flowed from the conditions of their existence. There was also of course, the element of bureaucratic repression against revolutionary militants, especially where there existed powerful Communist Parties, but this was a secondary element. Today, what we have to particularly understand is that if the strength of reformism and the weakness of revolutionary ideas for several decades had a rational explanation, in a different situation workers can only become more receptive to the arguments of the revolutionaries. Indeed that is what is happening today, on a modest scale but unquestionably.

On the political level, as long as this situation lasted the possibilities of splits to the Left, of new parties, were limited. Where such splits did occur, from Social Democracy or from the Stalinist parties, none evolved towards revolutionary positions. Everywhere these parties were either reabsorbed by Social Democracy, disappeared, or (in particular in Scandinavia) crystallised as left reformist formations.

The situation began to change at the end of the 70s. The evolution of Social Democracy towards a role of simply managing capitalism is closely linked to the crisis which began in 1974-75 and to the offensive launched against the working class from the second half of the 70s, at different rhythms in different countries. The rightward evolution of the traditional parties, the fact that these parties were either leading the attacks against the working class or incapable of organising effective resistance to them, is decisive in order to understand the defeats which have been inflicted on the working class in Western Europe in the course of the last twenty years.

This evolution of Social Democracy was reinforced and accelerated by the apparent triumph of capitalism which accompanied the collapse of Stalinism. As for the Communist Parties, most of them were already displaying an increasing tendency towards social-democratisation. The collapse of the USSR has pushed them to the right, towards Social Democracy and in the last resort towards extinction.

We really have to characterise this evolution of the traditional parties of the working class as a process of bourgeoisification. We can discuss the degree of completion of this process, but the direction in which things are going is clear. It is no longer possible to characterise these parties as we formerly did, as workers’ parties, even bourgeois workers’ parties. They are tending to become simply bourgeois parties, with nevertheless a certain residual relationship with the working class, inherited from their history.

Can we talk about «reformism»?

Today it is meaningless to talk of reformist parties, for where are the reforms ? These are parties which apply without fail the policies of the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie, in alliance with classical bourgeois forces. The «reforms» which they apply are in fact counter-reforms, for not only do they add nothing to the gains of the working class, they systematically attack those which exist. We can even say, and their present dominance in the governments of the European Union underlines this, that faced with the crisis of the traditional Right, they are today the main instruments for conducting the affairs of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisification of these parties isn’t limited to the policies they apply. It also involves an increasing integration into the state apparatus, the boards of the big companies, the various foundations and think tanks of the bourgeoisie. It involves too a change in their social composition, which often goes hand in hand with new rules of functioning which increase the autonomy of the summits of these parties in relation to the base. On this point as on so many others, it is Tony Blair’s New Labour which shows the way, just as in her time Thatcher was the spearhead of the neo-liberal offensive. Quite logically, one after the other these parties formally abandon the objective of socialism. It is difficult to see how this process could be reversed, unless by a highly improbable influx of workers into these parties.

This evolution of the traditional parties has consequences for their relations with the working class. First of all these parties are being progressively emptied of working class militants. This process is not complete. For the moment, as long as there is no credible alternative, a certain number of militants prefer to remain in them for want of anything better. Next, an increasing part of their electoral base is tending to desert them. After expressing itself in a first stage (and still today) by an increasingly high level of abstention by the working class electorate, this disaffection is beginning to be expressed by a readiness to vote for political forces to the left of the institutional left. From this point of view, the phenomenon of the LO-LCR list in France, while perhaps more advanced than elsewhere, is not unique. The results of a series of elections show the same tendency at work in many parts of Europe.

The nature of the present challenge

This evolution of the traditional parties creates a completely new situation. We therefore have to start by getting rid of outmoded schemas. To paraphrase Lenin, of «formulas which have aged, which are no longer good for anything, which are dead and which no-one will succeed in resuscitating». So we will wait in vain for an influx of the masses into the traditional parties. By what operation of the Holy Spirit would workers join parties which ceaselessly attack them ? Equally we would sink into total absurdity by continuing to drone «SP-CP government». Not to mention «without bourgeois ministers». What is Strauss-Kahn (2), then, a workers’ minister ? That makes it more difficult to concretise the perspective of a workers’ government ? Certainly. But that’s the reality. To overcome the problem, it is first of all necessary for political forces to exist which could form such a government, for these forces to have mass support, for there to exist institutions of workers’ democracy on which a workers’ government could base itself. As for the practice of making calls on the SP or CP, which some people formerly presented as an expression of the united front tactic, it is also becoming irrelevant.

For revolutionary militants the perspective is no longer to seek to build revolutionary parties in opposition to reformist parties, with the idea of breaking away whole layers of these parties. Today it is a question of building parties not in opposition to powerful reformist and Stalinist parties, but to replace these parties which are abandoning the terrain of the workers’ movement. It is a question of creating new workers’ parties on the basis of the intransigent defence of workers’ interests. But also of rebuilding the entire working class movement on new political bases. Which means revolutionary militants taking on more and more positions of leadership : in struggles, in the unions, in the associations. That is in any case what is happening, and it represents a molecular recomposition of the tissue of the workers’ movement.

If the task is to build new parties, certain questions arise. First of all, what is the situation on the terrain, the context within which we have to carry out this task ? Next, on what basis can we build a party? Finally, what are the responsibilities of revolutionaries ?

First of all, what is the situation on the terrain ? An expression is often used by those who are trying to understand the present situation of the workers’ movement in order to transform it : that there is a «vacuum» to fill on the left of the institutional Left. That does describes a certain reality, but the term is badly chosen. It would be better to speak about a space to conquer. Because the terrain isn’t empty, but littered with the debris of the preceding period. The workers’ movement has not disappeared with the bourgeoisification of its parties and the rightward evolution of the trade union leaderships. There are militants who stay in the SP and CP but who remain loyal to their class, trade unionists, community activists. There are far left organisations : Trotskyist, libertarian, more rarely Maoist ; there are red-green currents. All these forces, plus the new generations coming into action, constitute the raw material for a new party.

The hypothesis that new parties would come into being through vertical splits to the Left in the traditional parties has been largely invalidated by experience. Only in Italy have we seen this type of split, produced by the violent swing to the Right of the PCI which was transformed into the PDS and which led to the creation of the PRC. And even there we have to take into account the rapid influx into this party of forces coming from the far-left, of unaffiliated trade unionists, of youth. In Spain, the PCE was able to initiate the formation of the United Left, a fairly heterogeneous federation, ranging from revolutionary currents to reformists tempted by an alliance with the PSOE.

In both cases it is a question of formations not yet clearly demarcated from reformism and Stalinism, fairly unstable, but which are workers’ parties, which a layer of the working class identifies with and is active within. It seems correct therefore that revolutionaries should be active within them and seek to influence their evolution. In France, we cannot exclude a left split from the CP. But in view of what the party represents today, such a split would have less impact than in Italy and the result would probably not be any bigger than the major far-left organisations. It has to be taken into account that the forces and the electoral base of the PCF more closely resemble the PRC than the former PCI. And its capacity to mobilise is probably less than that of Bertinotti’s party.

In France the responsibility for advancing towards the creation of a new workers’ party rests essentially on the far-left and especially on the Trotskyist organisations. Today the task is to work to bring together all the forces, all the militants who are ready to fight capitalism, and who actually do fight it every day, each in their own way. It is not a question of first of all bringing about the unity of Trotskyists or revolutionaries. That would be an ideological, not a political way of viewing the process. Obviously, any regroupment of revolutionary organisations which is possible on the basis of sufficient agreement to be able to act together can be a step towards a new party. But it is not a necessary passage, a stage that has to be gone through. The perspective is to regroup forces not around pre-established ideological criteria, but on the basis of the challenges of the political situation and the tasks which flow from that.

The main requirement : a real anti-capitalist programme

What could be the political basis of a new party ? The essential task is to bring together all those who refuse to consider that we can’t go beyond capitalism, who refuse the new world order, who are ready to resist the manifold attacks of the government and the bosses. We need an anti-capitalist party, which means unambiguous opposition to the Jospin government which is a capitalist government. We need a party which defends the unity and the independence of the working class not only in France but on an international level, a party which is therefore internationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist. The exact outlines of a new party will depend on the conditions of its coming into existence, on the forces that are involved in it. But it will not be a classical revolutionary party, in the sense that Trotskyists have understood it up to now, that is to say a party having absorbed a priori the lessons of the history of the workers’ movement, of the first four congresses of the Comintern, of the contribution of the Trotskyist movement. A living party would necessarily include elements who do not define themselves as revolutionaries, whose break with reformism is not complete. The differentiations which will take place will take place above all in relation to the challenges and the concrete tasks posed by the class struggle, not in relation to ideological cleavages.

Does that mean that the historic programme of Trotskyism is redundant ? Not at all. The fundamental elements of this programme are still relevant : unity and independence of the proletariat, opposition to inter-class fronts, actuality of the socialist revolution, transitional method, workers’ democracy, workers’ government.

The task of revolutionaries in a new party will be to fight to give this party the clearest and most advanced anti-capitalist programme possible, fighting for their ideas in a democratic and pluralist framework. The essential ideas which have been defended by the Trotskyist movement for decades can now be grasped by the masses because they correspond to their needs. The objective basis of reformism is in the process of disappearing. That doesn’t mean that under the blows of the capitalist crisis reformist projects and currents can’t take shape. It does mean that these new formations will be weaker, less stable than before. Revolutionary Marxists have therefore every reason to be confident in their own ideas and in their ability to take their class forward.

It would be completely wrong and potentially catastrophic to go into a new party in an «entrist» frame of mind, in a logic of faction against faction. Revolutionary Marxists can be like fish in the sea in a workers’ party which is rooted in day-to-day struggles, fighting around an anti-capitalist action programme, having as its objective a break with capitalism.

In a general sense, revolutionary organisations, large or small, are faced with a challenge. Either they will be capable of rising to the tasks of the hour, or else they will be condemned to go into crisis, to split, to be marginalised, to disappear. There is no future for organisations which proclaim themselves «the» revolutionary party, if there ever was one. As for those who simply consider themselves the «nucleus» of the revolutionary party, they show a little more modesty. However, Marxists don’t believe in predestination. There is no guarantee that a nucleus will become a party or help to build a party. That depends on the existence of a programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics whose correctness is confirmed in practice. And especially, for a small group, it depends on the ability to avoid like the plague what Cannon called «the political sickness» of sectarianism. Today the period is over when a Trotskyist organisation could content itself with existing and recruiting by criticising Stalinism, Social Democracy and other Trotskyists. Now Trotskyists will be judged above all by their ability to lead workers’ struggles and to build new parties which really defend the interests of the working class.

Today in France, we have to know how to take concrete steps towards such a party. We are confronted with an opportunity not to be missed. The LO-LCR list has appeared from the beginning of the electoral campaign as the only list on the Left which is independent of the government, as the only working-class, anti-capitalist list. Today we can add that it is the only list which has taken a position against NATO’s bombings and for the right to self-determination of the Kosovars. That further widens the gulf with the lists of the «plural Left» (3). It is therefore important that this list obtains the best possible score. But above all we have to see how we can take that as our starting point to go forward, to begin to provide the political representation that the working class lacks at present.

Hundreds of thousands of workers, youth, unemployed are going to vote for this list. Tens of thousands are coming to hear Arlette Laguiller and Alain Krivine. The participation in their meetings goes beyond the far left’s traditional audience and includes many trade unionists and a significant number of CP militants. What are we going to propose to them at the end of the campaign? To choose between joining one or the other far-left organisations ? That would be a fine way to ensure that the campaign ended with a whimper.

The stakes are obviously elsewhere, and they are high. What is needed is to propose a framework to work together after the elections, to constitute a force capable of intervening in all the struggles against exploitation and oppression. Of course we can’t create a party by waving a magic wand. Nobody expects LO and the LCR to announce a new party on the evening of the 13th June. Besides, in that respect the precedent of 1995 is not encouraging (4).

The differences, the divisions, the mistrust won’t be overcome overnight. But we can begin to advance towards organised collaboration, towards a front, an alliance, a framework which enables organisations, groups and individuals to participate. Without waiting for the result of the 13th June, but even more afterwards, it is more than time for all those who share this objective to act together to take things forward. The next forum organised by Carré rouge, on the 27th June, can be an important moment in this process (5).


In France the end of the Second World War is known as the «Libération». The term «Thirty Glorious Years» («trente glorieuses») is commonly used to refer to the long period of post-war expansion.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is Minister of Finance in the Jospin government.

«Plural Left» is the term used to denote the governing coalition in France, made up of the Socialists, Communists and Greens as well as other smaller parties.

On the evening of the first round of the presidential elections in 1995, after obtaining 5,3 % of the votes, Arlette Laguiller issued a call for a new workers’ party. However, subsequently no concrete steps were taken by her organisation, Lutte Ouvrière, towards such a party.

The theme of this forum was «How can we lay the foundations of an anti-capitalist, democratic and internationalist party of workers (active and unemployed) and youth ?)». The forum was co-organised by several organisations, including the Gauche révolutionnaire-La Commune. LO and the LCR were invited. The LCR sent a delegation : LO declined to participate.

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