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Left Unity - for Socialism or for Reformism?

In March, following the relative success of his nostalgic film about the post-war Labour government The Spirit of 45, Ken Loach launched an appeal for the formation of a new left-of-Labour (not to say Old Labour) party. The ball was picked up by others and a new Left Party is to be founded at a meeting in London on 30 November.

Loach’s appeal brought in some 9000 replies, though well under  a thousand of them seem to have followed this up by getting involved in local ‘Left Unity’ groups. An appeal published in the Guardian (12 August) sets out the general aim of those calling for the new party:

‘We urgently need a new party of the left. Labour will not provide the opposition to coalition politics that the situation demands. We need to provide a genuine alternative to the austerity policies which the three main parties support. A party that is socialist, environmentalist, feminist and opposed to all forms of discrimination.’

A meeting in May of those who had responded to Loach’s appeal decided that the new party should be an individual membership organisation. This was in deliberate contrast to a previous attempt to form a new left-of-Labour party in the early years of this century – the ‘Socialist Alliance’, which was in effect an electoral alliance between the SWP and Militant and which eventually fell apart because of rivalry between these two Trotskyist groups.

The individual membership decision was, and was meant to be, a rebuff to such groups, though their members are still free to join as individuals. Some Trotskyist groups – ‘Socialist Resistance’ and ‘Workers Power’ – have accepted this. This is likely to cause the new party problems in the future as it is a well-known tactic of such groups to ‘enter’ a bigger party, form a ‘faction’ (whether open or clandestine) within it, and breakaway away at some point with, they calculate, more members than they went in with.

But why another Left party? Aren’t there already a number of left-of-Labour parties which contest elections? Scargill’s SLP, Galloway’s Respect Party, the SWP, Militant (now calling themselves SPEW), TUSC and even the Communist Party of Britain (who run the Morning Star). The aim seems to be to form a party of a different type, one that is neither dominated by a single individual nor organised on Leninist lines; an open, more or less democratic party like, in the British context, the old ILP. Supporters of the new party cite existing European parties such as the Party of the Left in France, Die Linke in Germany and Syriza in Greece as examples they want to follow.

The general orientation of the new party has yet to be decided. That’s going to be settled at its founding conference at the end of the November. In the meantime three ‘platforms’ for discussion at the conference are circulating amongst those who signed up to Loach’s appeal.

One – the Left Unity Platform – is that of those who took the initiative to call for setting up the new party. They want a broad party that will attract any and every one to the left of Labour. In other words, an opportunist, catch-all party. They have the support of one of the Trotskyist groups, ‘Socialist Resistance’, which claims to be the genuine ‘Fourth International’ and is the successor of the old IMG of the 1970s of which Tariq Ali was a prominent member.

More interesting is the second one, called the ‘Socialist Platform’. It seems to be the initiative of one of the constituents of TUSC – the ‘Independent Socialist Network’, which caters for individuals who support TUSC but are not members of SPEW or of the RMT union. In fact the ISN seems to be on the brink of defecting from TUSC to the new Left Party.

The third – the so-called ‘Class Struggle Platform’ – can be dismissed fairly quickly. It has been put forward by another Trotskyist group, ‘Workers Power’, and just reproduces their programme. These people are nothing if not brazen. The new party has not yet been formed and they have already founded a ‘faction’ within it.

The ‘Socialist Platform’ is reproduced opposite. As can be seen, it is written in the same sort of language that we use; in fact we can agree with a large part of it, especially that ‘capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority’ and clauses 6, 7 and 9. There are of course differences. For instance, clause 2 could imply that a ‘state’ will continue to exist in socialism. Clause 3 does not say explicitly that socialism has to involve the complete ending of production for the market. Clause 5 ends with a peculiar formulation on Europe (even though this is an advance on the No2EU embraced by most of the Left). Clause 8 is the real stumbling block from our point of view as it opens the way for the party to campaign for reforms.

Others, too, have noticed its similarity with what we say. A supporter of the Left Unity Platform has offered the following criticism of it:

‘There is no acknowledgement that fighting for reforms in the short term is entirely compatible with aiming for socialism in the longer term. Absent is any idea that a fight for reforms can raise people’s self-activity and point towards escalating demands; instead we are offered something approaching impossibilism. Current struggles are played down in favour of visions of a utopian future.’

If you follow the link from the word “impossibilism” it takes you to a Wikipedia page which explains that the main current exponent of this in Britain is us (see: leftunity.org/which-way-for-left-unity-the-case-for-the-left-party-platform). The author, Tom Walker, is a member of a breakaway group from the SWP. So this is a case of a Trotskyist criticising the ‘Socialist Platform’ for being too like the SPGB, a damning argument amongst Trotskyists.

One group of Leninists who have signed it are not satisfied with it, but because they see it as non-Leninist. This group, calling itself the ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ (even though they have nothing to do with the old, now defunct CPGB) and publishing the Weekly Worker, have proposed a series of amendments intended to turn it into a Leninist statement.

For instance, where the original version says:

‘The Left Unity party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism’

they want to change this to:

‘It seeks to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by the rule of the working class. Our ultimate aim is a society based on the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’, a moneyless, classless, stateless society, within which each individual can develop their fullest individuality.’

On the face of it this seems more explicitly socialist and of course we too want a ‘moneyless, classless, stateless society’, but what this is actually doing is introducing the Leninist distinction (which we reject and which was never in Marx’s writings) between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. We call a moneyless, classless, stateless society ‘socialism’ (or, occasionally ‘communism’, as the two words mean the same) and this may well be the view also of some of those who have signed the original platform. For us, this is the immediate aim, but for those behind the amendment it is only a far-off ‘ultimate aim’, just as it was for the government of the old USSR. Their immediate aim is a so-called ‘workers state’ in which money, classes and the state will continue to exist.

There is no chance of the ‘Socialist Platform’ being accepted at the founding conference of the new party. The Left Unity Platform will be adopted and a new wishy-washy, leftwing reformist party will come into existence.

The trouble, for them, is that such a left-of-Labour party already exists in the Green Party. The only difference is that the Green Party does not claim to be ‘socialist’, only ‘environmentalist, feminist and opposed to all forms of discrimination’. Apart from that, the policies that the two parties will be advocating will be the same, for instance, defence of the welfare state, bringing the utilities back into ‘public’ ownership, failed Keynesian policies as a supposed alternative to austerity, against overseas military action… So, to succeed, the new party will have to replace the Green Party. Which hardly seems likely.

Then there are the other smaller left-of-Labour parties competing on the same ground. They are not going to go away. Nor will the Trotskyist groups that have decided to ‘enter’ it. So the new Left Party is likely to be a non-starter and will probably end up as just another such small party, so adding to the confusion as to what socialism is and how to get it.

The only positive thing that could come out of this is for some of those who signed the ‘Socialist Platform’ to realise that a socialist party, on sound socialist principles, already exists and is already campaigning for socialism and nothing but.