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Book Review: New Parties of the left: Experiences from Europe - Bensaid, Sousa et al Resistance Books, London 2011. price: €9, £7

John McAnulty 

20 January 2012

I have a unique qualification as a reviewer of this book. 28 years ago I experienced in Ireland what would now be called a left regroupment.  As with many of the case studies in the book, it followed a defeat - in this case the defeat of the Irish hunger strikes.

Mass activity on the streets declined. Many small socialist, feminist and trade union and community groups disappeared. However Sinn Fein saw a substantial growth and major electoral victories.

It was against this background that a group in the leadership of the Fourth International section in Ireland, then called People's Democracy, supported by the FI leadership, proposed that we joined many republican leftists and community activists in entering Sinn Fein.

This was a very extreme version of left unity. For all its radical rhetoric Sinn Fein was not a socialist organization. The electoral programme was that of bourgeois nationalism and was edging towards an accommodation with British imperialism. Not only that, but Sinn Fein did not have a functioning internal democracy and political currents were not allowed. 

So what was being proposed was not entryism or the construction of a current fighting for socialism - it was simply entry. The majority of our organization described this as liquidation and the organization split. Those who entered Sinn Fein moved sharply to the right and few are now politically active. Sinn Fein itself is now a full-blown bourgeois nationalist organization, a member of a colonial government applying a major austerity drive against the workers. It still however appears on platforms organised by the Fourth International.

A space to the left?

From this perspective the book generates an intense feeling of déjà vu. Rather than presenting Marxist analysis it largely relies on narrative. Insofar as it bases the narrative on analysis the analysis is cursory and unconvincing.

A number of entries are intensely irritating in that the narrative is full of content that appears to be part of the discourse of revolutionary socialism but, on further reading, leaves a fog of confusion. Are the writers guilty of deliberate deception, dressing a pretty tired electoralism and reformism in a sort of pidgin Marxism? Or are they themselves no longer able to distinguish between reform and revolution?

This confusion is inevitable because this is a book about organizations and shifts in electoral representation. It is not about the working class and the movement of class struggle but rather about obtaining parliamentary representation for the class. This is an important distinction. It is quite clear from the narrative that the programme developed by the Trotskyist movement is not the basis for electing representatives. A revolutionary programme is by implication an obstacle to electoral success and in the weaker entries it is silently suppressed.

The assumptions on which the various narratives are based are presented in a few lines by Fred Leplat on page 11. Capitalist offensives on the working class, plus the fall of the USSR,  meant that Social Democratic and Stalinist parties had moved right and opened a space to the left of social democracy. The left currents cannot fill this space. New broad, pluralist parties are needed.

This position only has credibility as long as it is posed in organizational terms. Posed in class terms it is hard to justify. The working class did suffer substantial defeats and the fall of the USSR to capitalism was a shattering defeat. In these circumstances the workers retreat and their organizations move right. The struggle for revolutionaries then arises around preserving their organizations and political programme.

By imagining a left space separate from the general retreat of the class and a pluralist party necessary to occupy that space the contributors to this book set themselves tasks diametrically opposed to the historical tasks of revolutionaries. In the majority of the case studies it leads them to dispense with the programme and dissolve the organization.

Explaining this project runs into trouble right away when Bertil Videt, in his introduction, attempts to define regroupment by using documents of the 14th world congress of the Fourth International in 1995. We run immediately into a problem endemic throughout the book - a fog of contradictory definitions and formulations that leave the reader bemused.

The 1995 document referenced regroupment with "fragments .... breaking with the social democratic policy of joint responsibility for the economic crisis."  A few lines further on the author says that (the fragments) should break with social democratic policy. (p14)

Breaking with a specific social democratic policy is clearly not the same as breaking with social democracy, so it becomes unclear what is required from the objects of regroupment. It is much clearer what is required from the FI members - fusion will make their programme redundant.

If there is any doubt about this the approving reference to the Brazilian Workers Party as a forerunner to regroupment clarifies matters. The participation of Trotskyites in ministerial positions in the capitalist government headed by Lula is seen by critics as a catastrophe, underlined by the decimation of the FI section in Brazil, yet in 2011 the experience is still put forward as a model! (p15)

In any case Videt breezily announces that different regroupments require different forms and settles for a list - a ragbag of different organizations, a number of which are defunct and others of which are clearly social democratic. He ends with the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) of France - a party which "regrouped" with its own periphery.

Clearly the use of regroupment as a term explaining the movement of Fourth International sections into these groups is highly suspect. Labouring to find a class analysis in the context of the book is difficult. One suspects that Bertil lacks the political perspective that would produce clarity when he remarks that:

"social democratic leaders, for whatever reason, did not produce explicit left wing policies." (p16) When did Marxist expect Social Democratic governments to produce left policies?

The article then dives into tables of electoral voting and membership that are utterly meaningless in the absence of a clear definition of the nature of regroupment parties, ending with the cheerful insistence that history is still being written.

France: “a field of unstable forces”

The late Daniel Bensaid adds at great deal of style without adding clarity. The (space to the left social democracy) is not empty, but "a field of unstable forces" (p32) pulling to the left and right. This offers two "options" with which we can classify the new parties. One option is represented by Die Linke in Germany with the task of pressurising Social democracy, the other, represented by the NPA in France aim to create "a real strategic alternative to mild social liberalism". 

Again all is confusion. If there are unstable forces they would work both inside and outside parties. Broad parties would include all these currents, as the trajectory of the NPA subsequently showed, so the distinction between the two groups is not fundamental. Parties represent different social forces if they have different programmes, but what is "a real strategic alternative to mild social liberalism" other than a series of platitudes? (p34)  It is clearly not the programme of Trotskyism, for the only certainty to come from the foundation of the NPA is that the LCR and its revolutionary programme no longer exists. 

Bensaid is followed by Alain Krevine. His narrative account lists elements of French history from the second world war, with little in the way of explanation. Like Bensaid, a lot of attention is devoted to the French socialist and communist parties and to electoral strategy, amidst protestations that the NPA will be a pole against reformism.

Krevine undertakes an uncomfortable discussion of internationalism. The LCR is a section of the fourth International. The NPA is not, nor is it asked to be. LCR members remain individual members of the International, but they do not campaign as a tendency for the NPA to do so. This is justified by appeal to a non-existent fifth international, but clearly the FI and its historical programme have nothing to do with this.

Perhaps the greatest shock is Alain Krevine's acknowledgement that the French experience will not serve as a model (p50). The LCR leadership were the most enthusiastic purveyors of the "space to the left" model and spent many years seeking alliances with left factions of the communist party. No new left space emerges. The Communist Party collapses to the right. The socialist party become absorbed completely into the bourgeois programme of austerity. 

Luckily the LCR do not collapse to the right. Instead they dissolve their organization, abandon their programme and fuse with their own periphery and with other small Trotskyist groupings – a strategy seen by the FI majority as the antithesis of the “broad left” strategy. This is a new form of politics. The external observer might be forgiven for believing that the comrades are simply abandoning the weapons of political programme and fleeing in a rout from the ideological offensive of capital.

Any review of French accounts of the birth of the NPA should note an extraordinary omission. That is the call by the LCR to vote for Chirac, the representative of French imperialism, as a defence against the far-right Le Pen candidate. This was not a mistake. It was a crime that indicates that many of the LCR leadership had passed through a political event horizon where the lessons of working class history were no longer visible.

Left unity in Denmark

In contrast the report by Michael Voss on the evolution of the Red-Green alliance is remarkably detailed and honest. As a result it is immediately clear that the mechanism involved is not that of advancing into a left space, but rather of a struggle for survival amongst fragmentation and retreat and at a time when the workers were inactive or only episodically active. 

The issues are organizational considerations, parliamentary representation, and the result a minimalist programme that relies on consensus. As Michael Voss himself admits, these conditions - in reality a sort of popular front - militate against political discussion and education.

One outcome was the Asmaa case (p66), where the RGA defended a Muslim RGA candidate from attack from the right, without understanding that her own reactionary views should have banned her from membership.

A new challenge faces the RGA with a social democratic coalition in place in government. Sections of the RGA argue for the need to defend the government - in practice this means supporting austerity against the workers. Sections of the RGA have already swung right in local government and implemented austerity policies.

The desire of the FI section, the SAP, to prevent this turn is apparent. The long years in which they avoided presenting a revolutionary programme make it all the more difficult now to press forward this struggle. Although one can admire Michael Voss for his relatively straightforward account and for his acceptance of a movement towards social democracy as a real danger, one can only feel despair when he concludes with a call for business as usual and a the continuation of the SAP role as a loyal opposition in the alliance.

Left Unity and RESPECT in Britain 

The British contribution, by Alan Thornett and John Lister, is another detailed and accurate attempt to provide an account of attempts to build a new party - some would say too detailed, as it ploughs through an alphabet soup of British left groups and their front organizations. They make an important change in formulation from the earlier accounts - here the party is to be composed of (revolutionaries) "and those from a social democratic background''. There is no clarification of the need to break from social democracy.

The authors restate succinctly the central contradiction of the book. They assert that the need for "pluralist" parties has existed for 20 years - yet the left, a large section of whom have been committed to left unity, "is weaker than it has been for many years" (p75).

Why is this? The paper is unable to tell us. It is, yet again, an account of organizations and elections. The enormous changes in the class struggle are largely absent. So too is the political programme on which left unity is to be built. It appears that unity is itself a policy.

Where this becomes most confusing is in the account of the RESPECT coalition. All that is said about the founding programme is that it was: "strong enough in its socialist content to represent an alternative to new labour and broad enough to create a wider coalition". "It replaced ... An anticapitalist party with one which was more social democratic (at least its key components...)". "it represented a shift to the right..." "It could reach out to... muslim activists". Sections of the left denounced it as a popular front. (p87)

Then some electoral successes are listed. Do these resolve the political debate about the nature of the new organization? We are then given an account of Socialist Resistance's intervention into RESPECT. These amount to calls to democratise the movement and to build a party structure. Again unity seems a sufficient programme, with no explicit discussion of the tasks facing the working class.

A concentration on organization is linked with a remarkably deferential attitude to the trade union bureaucracy and a polite approach to new labour. Trade union leaders are seen as "reluctant" to oppose new labour (p84) or "largely passive" in the face of the austerity (p100).  New Labour are seen as "ineffective and timid." Strange weasel words about a party committed to austerity and a bureaucracy dedicated to returning them to government.

The comrades document the drawn-out decay of RESPECT, dominated by events such as the appearance of George Galloway on a reality TV show and battles over democracy between Galloway and the British Socialist Workers Party in which both sides seem dishonest. There is no discussion of the tendency of the new parties to produce celebrity leaders outside any democratic control.

They discuss groups such as the Scottish Socialist party, No2EU and TUSC. Again the critique is about democracy and organization. No2EU was criticized as making adaptations to English chauvinism. Is this the case? Did the Scottish Socialist party adapt to Scots nationalism? Were there any political grounds for the failure of these organisations? We aren't told.

The article ends with another call for a democratic party. Unity is an aim in itself. The idea that unity requires an object or that that object is the working class programme - that is entirely absent.

Die Linke in Germany: The need for an exit strategy

Klaus Engert, in his examination of the evolution of Die Linke in Germany, presents us with the transition from theory to practice. The theory of a space to the left of social democracy is put to the test and found wanting.

German social democracy did indeed move to the right, with a series of attacks on the working class and moves to expand German imperialism and the role of German militarism. 

As Klaus accepts, in part this is associated with German socialists first experiment with a "space to the left" - the formation of the German Green party. The experiment led to a coalition government, a mass offensive on workers and the collapse of the Greens. Many of the socialists who had conducted the experiment continued on the rightward trajectory that the rhetoric of new leftism had obscured.

Undeterred, the German socialists began the experiment again. In this case, as the social democrats proposed a neo-liberal agenda, a political space did open up. Unfortunately it was not a space that pointed in any specific direction. With a base in the lower levels of the trade union bureaucracy and political positions ranging from socialism through social democracy to Christian democrats, the new formation, WSWG, had many characteristics familiar in earlier chapters. (p105)

Unity came before programme, electoral and parliamentary activity before policy and working class action.

These tendencies continued when WSYG went on to merge with the former (some not so former) Stalinists of the old East German ruling party and formed Die Linke.

Die Linke is now a large party but, as Klaus Engert attests, in local government it is little different from other bourgeois parties. Its practice is electoral and parliamentary, its programme social democratic, the social composition of its activists a mixture of reformists and opportunists. The small socialist layer that aims to act outside parliament and support the self-organization of the working class were dismissed by a (former socialist) leader Gregor Gysl: "every party has its 10% of crazy people." (p109)

So the new party is not driven by broad social movements or by a radical mass movement. It is not moving left, but simply occupying the vacant space left by the social democrats (p113).

Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that socialists ask if Die Linke is an obstacle to socialist politics. (p114) The writer sees an urgent need to build a common radical strategy of the left inside Die Linke. (ibid) and also to develop an exit strategy. (p115)

A strange place to be, decades into the search for a new space on the left!

Italy's Refondazione: "What have we done to deserve all this?"

A key article should be the report on Italy's Refondazione. Nothing tests a model like destruction and, as Salvatore Cannavo, admits frankly in an introduction entitled "What have we done to deserve all this?" (p117) The collapse of the Refondazione project and the scale of defeat it involved were truly on an epic scale.

Unfortunately the article offers reportage rather than analysis or explanation. The language is rather poetic and this is rather confusing - "a surfing political line" (p125) rather than the more technical term opportunism. The greatest weakness of the piece is that it is written from the perspective of the organization rather than that of the working class or of political programme.

In the absence of this context the account is difficult to follow, even with the aid of a timeline in an appendix provided by Dave Kellaway. (p145)

Some elements of the Refondazione collapse are very clear and are listed by Salvatore Cannavo:

· A failure to resolve the stalinist past of the majority of the organization 
· Opportunism 
· A reliance on bureaucratic methods
· A reliance on parliamentary forms
· Detachment from workers struggles
· Dependence on the celebrity of the leadership which operates independently of the membership. (see the report on Georg Galloway in RESPECT).) 

We are told of the weaknesses but there is no explanation of how they arose, no record of consistent opposition and the alternative, when it arrives, is rather unsubstantial. There should be social mobilization on the basis of anti-capitalism. There should be a broad discussion of the ideas of a wide range of Marxist thinkers.( p139) A new class struggle movement should be built. We should build a left party that links radical social democracy with revolutionary socialism. (p144) Isn't this where Refondazione started?

The account is not complete. The comrades of the opposition did not go up to the edge with the leadership of Refondazione, they went over the edge and voted for imperialist war credits. Now, having drawn back, they want to run the film again. They agree a long struggle lies ahead, but do not consider that the first step might be for the Trotskyites to assert their own programme.

Left Bloc in Portugal: Beyond the event horizon

Two reports are given of the Portugeese Left Bloc. In the first Miguel Romero of the Spanish magazine Viento Sur interviews Francisco Louca. 

Romero, in an introduction, expands on the meagre theory of the "space to the left of Social Democracy." This is a shifting space - not always in the right direction. Organizations like the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and Refondazione have "stumbled." This is of little concern. We will concentrate on the successes.

How does Romero justify throwing away the 50% of the evidence that does not support his views?

"We are not interested in ideological issues ...What attracts us most is the different or even contradictory options that arise... This is a good vaccine against "models." (p149)

We are in an Alice in Wonderland world of obscurantism where Romero rules out any possibility of rational discussion. Things mean whatever he wants them to mean.

He is well matched by Francisco Louca, who provides a mixture of administrative detail and poetry:

"Somehow, we filled a space that did not exist, a political space that had not yet been recognized." (p155)

The space becomes somewhat more recognizable when we learn that the bloc has endorsed a member of the Socialist Party left as presidential candidate. (p.163)

Louca makes it clear that the bloc has no international perspective: 

"Today a socialist programme would undoubtedly be strangled by the European Union. An active socialist policy has to deal with the EU institutions to transform the conditions of European politics." (p162)

This "space that did not exist" is now completely recognizable. It is the most transparent and unselfconscious reformism, laced with nationalism. The idea that the working class may organise class struggle independently of European institutions is simply inconceivable to Francisco, as is the idea that the nation state is itself designed to prevent the workers coming to power.

In case Miguel and Francisco lack conviction we are presented with another organizational account by Alda Sousa and Jorge Costa. A short FAQ is followed by a timeline by Sousa.

We learn that "the idea that most demands can only be fulfilled under socialism may turn out to be dangerous and demobilising." (p179)

Most telling of all is the bloc's response to the bank bailout. 

· We should have an audit of the debt.
· We should renegotiate the debt 
· We should have a bailout fund financed by tax evaders.

So we end with a programme endorsed by trade union bureaucrats across Europe. The workers should not repudiate the debt. They should seek a better fairer way for it to be paid.

Unlike the comrades of Die Linke, the correspondents in the Bloc see no need for an exit strategy. They have passed beyond the event horizon into the black hole of social democracy.

The role and tasks of the Fourth International: speaking in tongues

The book ends with the text of the role and tasks of the Fourth International adopted at the 2010 congress. This statement is simply tacked on, but there are some things that should be said about it.

It is a statement that says little, and compensates for its defects by speaking in tongues. 

In the immediate aftermath of the credit crunch the declaration is innocent of any explanation or analysis of the crisis of capitalism. In the first lines it jumbles and conflates a crisis of capital, of the environment and of patriarchy. This jumble is related less to the working class and more to the "popular classes." (p187)

For anyone at any distance from the leadership of the Fourth International the main text is incomprehensible. In the absence of a clear statement of the working class as the subject of revolution we have a form of committeespeak that lumps together anti-capitalist, feminist, environmentalist, transgender, nationalist and democratic movements. Much of the language harks back to the anti-globalist movement and the world social fora.

These movements, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, were specifically not movements of the working class and now play a peripheral role. The convulsions since the credit crunch show the working class moving to centre stage, even if not yet a class for itself with its own programme and independent forms of organization. In these circumstances the text of the role and tasks of the Fourth International is entirely insufficient.

There is a long wade through the text to find policy on the broad anticapitalist parties that is the object of the book and on the associated question of the Fourth International. The formulations then presented are almost unreadable - more poetic obscurantism that appears designed to conflate and obscure political differences.

What does it mean when in: "Left reformist parties ...we build anti-capitalist tendencies linked to social movements"? (p194) What is an anticapitalist, internationalist, ecologist and feminist left"? (ibid)  "A left ... that cannot govern with the political representation with which it wants to break"? (ibid)  "A pluralistic left rooted in the social movements and workplaces" (ibid) 

The document declares: "Building broad anticapitalist parties is the current response we offer to the crisis in the workers and the left movement." (p195) What is the left movement separate from the workers? If this is the response we offer to the working class why is there no balance sheet of the parties already constructed? 

In this context the role of the international is explained as follows: "We must discuss how to strengthen and transform the Fourth International in order to make it an effective tool in the perspective of a new international grouping." (p197) In other words we must build the Fourth International in order to do away with it.

Sorting out this confusion is made possible when we observe what is absent. That is a revolutionary programme. In its absence protestations of applying a united front policy (p198) - where revolutionaries can unite with others while continuing to advance their own programme - are meaningless. 


The new parties being proposed appear as popular front organizations, beloved of Stalinists, where revolutionary policies are suppressed in the name of unity. The programme advanced is the most minimal of minimum programmes: No to coalition in capitalist governments, progressive views on social questions.

In the case of some sections of the British movement RESPECT the second condition was optional, with much tip-toeing around traditional Muslim hostility to the gay community. The no coalition demand is simply laughable. Many reformist current are anti-coalition until the offer of a place in government is made. In any case the damage they do in the real world of the streets, unions and workplaces puts into context their posturing in parliament. A movement advancing this as a central demand is already captive to parliamentary reformism.

This book advances a thesis: There is a space to the left of social democracy that can be filled by broad mass parties. It examines six case studies. In two cases, that of Respect and Refondazione, the project has "stumbled" and the organizations have collapsed. In three cases the parties are successful in the sense of electoral success. From the perspective of the self-organization of the class their success is more doubtful. In the case of Denmark the author, Michael Voss, accepts a tendency towards Social democracy but proposes no change in the orientation of the Trotskyists. Klaus Eugert seeks an escape route from Die Linke in Germany. The comrades in the Portuguese Left Bloc are in the same difficulty but are blind to any need to escape. The issue of the NPA in France is unresolved. All we can say with certainty is that the programme of the old LCR no longer applies and that that organization, afraid decades of effort, did not find a "space to the left of social democracy" and liquidated into its own periphery with the addition of some small Trotskyist groups.

The Fourth International declares in 2010 the centrality of building broad mass parties, but has no assessment of the actually existing parties, nor any analysis of the crisis of capital or indication of the tasks facing the working class.

Is there an alternative to the "space to the left of social democracy" model? The commonsense answer is that there is indeed a long period of working class retreat and that the socialist movement is itself bound up in that retreat. The political expression of that is liquidation - militants abandon the working class programme and adopt positions that allow them to retain a base in specific social layers.

In a number of cases this is a conscious process - as when Miguel Romero rejects "ideology" and "models." There are few grounds for discussion here. In other cases the process is unconscious and expressed in a concentration on organization and tactics to the exclusion of programme. Other comrades still hold to the historic programme of the International but in terms of sentiment and position, rather than as a guide to action.

Those who accept this analysis are in a difficult position. The contradiction of liquidation is not dogmatism. There is nothing to be gained by simply repeating the words of Trotsky as a magic incantation. Any serious socialist would have been active in the parties listed in this book, albeit around an independent revolutionary programme.

Our own experience in Ireland is that advancing a socialist programme has not gained us recruits. We are in fact rather isolated. What it has done is allow us to survive as an organization of revolutionary socialists, able to collectively analyse the evolution of the class struggle and advance the case for socialist revolution. We still believe that the survival of that programme and of a group of comrades organised around it remains an historic gain not lightly to be surrendered.

That, in my view, represents the way forward. The programme of the working class consists of the political tasks the workers have to undertake if they are to assert themselves. Revolutionary socialists can draw on Marxist theory and on the history of class struggle to attempt to make those tasks explicit. We should not approach this task as a factional battle inside the Fourth International. It is a task for everyone. Let those who are willing stand forward. 


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