Unity, Class, Program

Edited version of a contribution by IBT supporter Barbara Dorn to a panel discussion on “Is there a need for left unity?” at the Platypus European Conference, London, 19 July 2014.

One of the questions we often encounter is, “Why can't all you left groups just get together?” It's a good question that deserves a serious answer, whether it comes from people who lack experience in politics or more seasoned comrades who should already know the answer and frame it in seemingly more sophisticated terms like “left unity.”

It poses two other questions: What do we mean by “left”? and What do we mean by “unity”?

“Left” is used to refer to everything from the Lib Dems to the Greens to the Labour left to self-defined socialists of various types to anarchists to genuine communists and everything in between. What the term “left” does not refer to is the working class.

It is the political consciousness of the working class that is of central importance to achieving the goals that many of us share, whether it's winning a particular strike or carrying out a successful socialist revolution. The broadest possible unity of the working class against the capitalists and their states – that is what we need.

On the face of it, it might seem that the best way to achieve such unity would be to unify the existing tendencies that represent or seek to represent the working class (and exclude bourgeois forces like the Greens) and then democratically sort out our differences as we engage in real-life struggle. Something like this was the model for the First International, in which Karl Marx played a prominent role in the 1860s and early 1870s, and for the Second International, founded in 1889, which came to encompass such disparate formations as the British Labour Party, the German SDP, or the Russian SDLP. There were always elements that could not be contained within the common framework, but the idea of working-class political unity in the form of a single party was defended by virtually every leading socialist – in Karl Kautsky's formulation, “one class, one party” (or, to put it the other way round, a “party of the whole class”).

On the revolutionary left wing of the Second International – principally Lenin's Bolshevik faction in the fragmented Russian party – the idea of the “party of the whole class” had, as early as 1912, come into conflict with the need to defend the program of “working-class unity” in the form of socialist revolution. As Lenin noted in April 1914, “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.”

It would take two related world-historic events to definitively break genuine Marxists from the old organizational framework, radically changing our understanding of how to achieve revolutionary working-class unity. On 4 August 1914, deputies of the SDP betrayed the working class by voting in the Reichstag to grant funds to Germany to wage the imperialist war that had just broken out. In October 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian bourgeoisie in the face of opposition from the right wing of the Russian workers' movement – the Mensheviks and right-wing Social Revolutionaries.

It had become clear that political unity with forces committed, openly or not, to preserving the bourgeois order meant unity with the capitalist class against the working class. Achieving working-class unity against the bourgeoisie would require Marxists to win over a majority of the working class through sharp political struggle against – and organizational independence from – the reformists and centrists. In 1919, the Third (or Communist) International was founded on an explicitly revolutionary basis.

During the first few years of its existence steps were taken to ensure that reformists and centrists were not admitted to the Comintern. Combined with disgust over the outright treachery of the Second International, these measures were used by some ultra-left tendencies to argue against working with social democrats in any fashion.

But organizational unity of genuine Marxists against non-Marxist tendencies does not preclude unity in action with reformists and other political currents. After intense debate, the Comintern thus came to advocate the “united front” – precisely this sort of temporary unity in action around clear objectives, e.g., a strike, a demonstration against imperialist war, preventing a fascist mobilization, or a defense campaign for a working-class political prisoner. In a united front, Marxists maintain their own separate political organization and do not stop criticizing their bloc partners. The united front is an opportunity for Marxists to demonstrate in practice and through propaganda that they, and not the reformists, are the most consistent fighters for the workers' cause.

There is a fashion these days for “unity initiatives” like Die Linke, Syriza, the French NPA and a long line of attempts in Britain of which Left Unity is the latest manifestation. These go beyond unity in action to attempt to build unity around a lowest common-denominator program and common propaganda by groups and individuals who do not in fact share a program. This is a step backwards from the Leninist vanguard party model of breaking with the reformists. Marxists may work with this type of organization in common actions. In rare cases where there is a clear trajectory to the left and room for political debate, we may even join such a formation in order to attempt to influence that trajectory (as we did with the Socialist Labour Party in Britain in the mid-1990s). But always our perspective is that of an uncompromising fight to win revolutionary forces by exposing the political dead end reformism represents for workers and oppressed.

At an anti-austerity demonstration in London a few weeks ago, I met a comrade who challenged me to tell him the three most important reasons why the IBT maintained a separate existence. I'd like to end today by answering that question, because this is very much related to the key question we need to answer as Marxist revolutionaries: What program do we need to overthrow capitalism?

1. The state

Capitalism cannot be gradually reformed – it must be destroyed. We have important political differences with those on the left who believe in a parliamentary road to socialism, or who vote for Labour in the belief that it can be “reclaimed.” We do not seek unity with those that believe the armed bodies of the state (e.g., police, prison guards) are part of the workers' movement. Or with those who call on the state to ban fascist marches (bans which are then inevitably used against the left). Or those who are not prepared to defy the punitive anti-union laws but instead plead for them to be repealed through legal channels. Or with those who take or share power in capitalist administrations and participate in the imposition of austerity budgets, as Die Linke have done in Berlin and the Green Party in Brighton.

2. Internationalism

Those who support their own ruling class in war, or who maintain neutrality in the face of imperialist attack on a semi-colony, are no friends of working-class unity against capitalism. We defend the right of nations to self-determination, but are opposed to so-called socialists who see the ideology of nationalism as in some way progressive, as many are now doing over Scotland.

3. Independence of the working class

The working class must defend the rights of all the oppressed, but we do not share ideologies such as feminism that call for unity of women across class lines. We do not seek unity with those who wish to work in collaboration with the bourgeoisie, or vote for popular front coalitions between bourgeois and workers' organizations. Getting this question wrong is no small matter and has caused the workers' movement to go down to bloody defeat many times over, for example, Spain in the 1930s, Chile in the 1970s. Trotsky described this as “the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch.”

We do need unity – unity of the working class under the leadership of a party based on a program like the one I have just described – and for the working class to use that program to take power. The long road to that point will involve many episodes of unity in action, but it will also require Marxists to reject unity with those whose politics are contrary to the historic interests of the working class.