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Social democracy, neoliberalism and new left parties in Europe

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The once strong ties between social democracy and the European working class have become badly strained over the last two decades. As new left parties develop across Europe, Luke Cooper argues they should be founded on revolutionary politics.

Over the last two decades the parties of western European social democracy have tended to move sharply rightwards. They have willingly taken up the demands of the capitalist class and launched attacks on workers’ social gains, trade union rights and state-run welfare services and industry. This has put a huge strain on the relationship between these parties and their mass, working class memberships at a time when the organisations historically to the left of social democracy, the official communist parties, also went into decline. Many organisations on Europe’s far left identified this pattern by the end of the 1990s and saw in it an opportunity to move into the space these parties were vacating. In country after country, significant sections of the working class recognised their need for effective political representation and this generated a range of initiatives that pushed in the direction of the founding of new political parties. The task for revolutionaries was to intervene in such movements in a principled and non-sectarian way in order to take forward the fight for the revolutionary parties of the 21st century.

Below we argue that the “workers’ party tactic” – developed by Lenin and Trotsky in the 20s and 30s – provides a method for such an intervention that avoids both sectarian and opportunist pitfalls. The tactic was conceived to facilitate communists winning the leadership of movements for working class political representation in countries that did not already have mass labour or social democratic parties. Lenin and Trotsky did not anticipate applying it in countries with large social democratic parties, and for good reason. At that time, where such parties already existed, the crucial issue was not that the working class needed its own party but that it needed a revolutionary, not a reformist, party. However, this article will argue that there are circumstances in which the extension of the tactic to countries that have long had mass reformist parties – as a “new workers’ party’” tactic – is thoroughly consistent with their approach towards social democracy, the revolutionary programme and the united front. Both in particular understood that revolutionary programme and strategy had to accord with the concrete historical circumstances.

Revolutionaries should after all consider the question of what tactics to use towards social democratic parties, and reformist led organisations more generally, in a historical way. Only by analysing the development of social democratic parties, the evolution over time of their class contradictions within the broader social-historical context, will we be able to come to the right conclusions over how to break their hold on the working classes. It is in this spirit that we examine the question of revolutionary tactics towards reformism in the context of the phases of historical development we have seen in the post-war period. We look at the prospects for the building of new workers’ parties over the last decade and what these experiences tell us about how revolutionaries should intervene into new party movements. Finally, we ask whether the global economic crisis could generate a new phase of political flux and splits in Europe’s social democratic parties.

Lenin: social democracy as “bourgeois workers’ parties”
It was Lenin1 who fully codified the changing class character of the European workers’ parties following the First World War when he was forced to reflect upon the meaning and significance of their support for a world war of untold barbarity and reaction. The major parties of European social democracy broke from working class internationalism and declared support for “their own” national bourgeoisies at the outset of the war, forcing a split inside the working class movement. The split marked a transformation in the major social democratic parties. From organisations that had been committed to fusing the workers’ movement with the struggle for socialism and defending workers’ interests they had become pillars of capitalist class rule inside the workers’ movement. Lenin was convinced that there had been a qualitative transformation of the major social democratic parties into capitalist parties, that is, parties that had ultimately made peace with capitalism and would, in the final analysis, defend it from any revolutionary challenge. The social democracy could no longer be relied upon to fight consistently for the independent interests of the toiling classes, even on the most basic and immediate questions, but would instead increasingly act as the servants of capital inside the workers’ movement.

Lenin was compelled to reflect on the correlation of social and class forces that had led to this betrayal. It was, he argued, not simply a question of a few abominable leaders but of profound objective changes within capitalism. The historical expansion of capitalism across the globe, the growth of large private monopolies increasingly able to corner whole markets, the hegemony of finance capital, and the integration of the south and east into a world market dominated by the advanced capitalist (that is, imperialist) states, had all led to important changes within the working classes of the imperialist countries. The super-profits derived from exploitation of the world market by large monopolies meant that imperialist capital could increasingly afford to buy off, not only the middle classes, but also a privileged stratum of the working class – often those employed in highly skilled trades or strategic industries. The result was increased stratification and inequality within the working class of the imperialist countries. On the political terrain, these privileged strata of workers provided a material base for reformism in the workers’ movement.2

However, if social democracy had only organised this privileged strata, it would have been less of an obstacle to the struggle for communist hegemony over the great mass of the working class in the imperialist countries. Unfortunately, social democracy, with its mass organisations, from the trade unions to women’s organisations and the workingmen’s social clubs, retained great influence on the working class as a whole. Lenin’s analysis of the social democratic parties after the First World War thus held them to be a peculiar form of capitalist party. They could pose as class independent parties, particularly at elections, but on the battleground between the classes they plainly lacked independence. The social democratic leaders were always willing to vacillate, compromise and tailor their demands to what was acceptable to the capitalists. While the bosses could also make concessions to the workers’, these would always be vulnerable, and liable to be abolished once workers’ moved off the field of battle. For as long as the social democrats did not challenge the power of capital, the bosses remained free to enforce their will in the factories and to use state repression against the workers. With a focus on the electoral terrain and not the class struggle, the elected representatives of the social democracy became deeply embedded in the structures of the capitalist state and, where they held office, they took responsibility for the loyal defence of the system against its communist challengers.

But, Lenin also realised the significance of the mass proletarian base of the social democracy. He did not make the mistake of confusing the consciously counter-revolutionary leaderships of these parties with their proletarian memberships. Rather, the contradiction between these two classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie, within the social democratic parties had to be analysed and understood. Indeed, it was this contradiction, in and of itself, that distinguished social democracy from the openly bourgeois liberal, capitalist parties. Unlike the openly capitalist parties, the social democracy claimed to articulate workers’ interests, tended to incorporate workers’ organisation like the unions, and, formally at least, stood for socialist transformation. Moreover, they were also distinguished by the fact that their historical origins really did lie in the class struggle of working people. Even once they had become capitalist parties they continued to provide a relatively democratic space within which the working class could organise and so Trotsky even maintained they were defensive bulwarks of proletarian democracy. (A position that finds its negative confirmation in the offensive the fascists launched against the social democrats in the inter-war years.)

The essence of the matter was that social democracy had an organic, that is, a living, relationship to the working class, which the openly capitalist parties did not. In appreciation of this contradiction, Lenin identified these parties as “bourgeois workers’ parties”, that is, parties of the working class, but whose leaderships worked tirelessly for the interests of capitalism. Lenin’s dialectical characterisation remains important to this day in understanding social democracy’s class contradictions. At decisive moments in the class struggle – when capital faced almighty workers’ uprisings – Lenin argued social democracy would block with the capitalists against the working class. Sadly, history gives us countless examples of this. Immediately following the First World War, for instance, Lenin witnessed the terrible betrayal of the German Revolution of 1918. The social democratic leaders worked ceaselessly throughout the year to demobilise the class, put an end to the situation of dual power that had emerged with the formation of soviet-like bodies of workers and soldiers, and were ultimately willing to crush the revolution with armed force.

Reform or revolution: the primacy of politics in the class struggle
While Lenin identified the material basis of reformism in the imperialist countries, he did not argue that this created an insurmountable barrier to the socialist revolution. Few countries, after all, had a stronger labour aristocracy than Germany in 1918 but there was still a profound revolutionary upsurge. Explaining its defeat was, in the final analysis, a question of politics: the politics and strategy pursued by the workers’ leaders, the degree of independence of the vanguard of the working class from the reformists and, finally, the strength of the communists and their influence. The “split in socialism” proved that the workers’ parties’ class independence – though it had a sociological basis – was ultimately a question of political programme. Rosa Luxembourg had famously made this observation in her struggle against reformism in the Second International, when she wrote, “people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.”3

In Luxembourg, then, we have a critique of reformism at two levels. First, there is the “different goal” of reformism; instead of the seizure of power by the working class and the expropriation of capital, reformists stand for a slow accumulation of social reforms within the framework of capitalism and, where it is implemented with any consistency, this leads to a form of state capitalism. Second, there is the “calm and slow” road; a focus on elections and parliamentary activity over other spheres, a preference for methods of struggle that do not lead to a direct conflict with capital and the state forces (e.g. the police), and a willingness to make concessions and compromises to the bourgeoisie contrary to the workers’ independent interests. All of which makes reformists at best inadequate and at worst treacherous in the struggles of the working class to win reforms.

As is suggested here, all parties should be defined according to their political programme. In the final analysis a capitalist party is a political organisation that defends the rule of private property, the organisation of production according to the laws of the capitalist market and, crucially, recognises the authority of the capitalist state as a legitimate power against organs of working class power like soviets. The fact that the social democratic parties share these presuppositions with the openly capitalist parties is what makes them capitalist parties – despite their peculiar features we outlined above. Lenin and, to a degree, Luxembourg, developed a fully rounded and dialectical analysis of the reformism advanced by social democracy. They recognised its counter-revolutionary and bourgeois character, but they also understood its origins, as a creation of the working class in the course of its historic struggles.4 Indeed, this is implicit in Lenin’s insistence that socialist consciousness would not develop spontaneously amongst the class, but was rather contingent on the active intervention of a revolutionary party fighting for its political programme.

This analysis of social democratic parties as bourgeois workers’ parties informed two key aspects of political strategy for the communist movement in the years following the First World War. Firstly, the communists made the formation of truly independent workers’ parties, that is, revolutionary communist parties, their overriding aim and goal. This meant rejecting all calls for “unity” in a single party with the class collaborationists.5 Secondly, recognising their origin and base in the organised working class pointed to the need for united front tactics towards them. Lenin and Trotsky became particularly aware of this once the post-war revolutionary upsurge had come to an end; not only had there not been further socialist revolutions in the major European countries but social democracy retained its hegemony over the working class. The Communist International (Comintern) identified the united front tactic as the essential device for exposing the reformist leaderships of the class in practice. While the Comintern accepted that the particular form taken by the united front would vary in different concrete circumstances, it nonetheless knew that given the strength of reformist ideas in the workers’ movement united front tactics were likely to be of “decisive importance for the whole epoch”.6

There was no contradiction in these two propositions – the fight to build independent revolutionary organisations and parties and the use of united front tactics – on the contrary, they would go hand in hand so long as the communists strove to be strategists for the class, never limited their arguments to what was acceptable to the reformists at any given moment and always argued for what was necessary to win a given struggle. Where a united front was struck with the reformist parties, for example, a joint demonstration against war, the job of revolutionaries was to argue for the next step, that is, in this case, militant actions like strikes that could stop the war. Conflict between revolutionaries and reformists over the methods of struggle and forms of organisation was almost certain and through the course of this argument and the test of practice the communists needed to demonstrate that they were the best fighters for the interests of the class.

Social democracy’s class contradictions and the long boom
The concept of the bourgeois workers’ party allows us to appreciate the class contradictions between the working class and the bourgeoisie, which exist both within social democratic parties and in their relationship to the working class as a whole. This “dialectical understanding of the historic development of reformism as a product of the class struggle, but also a brake upon that struggle, allows revolutionaries to grasp how reformism’s strength can vary over time, dependent on the rhythm of the class struggle and the motion of capitalist society itself.”7

Periods of sustained capitalist expansion (for example, the late 1890s and early 1900s, or the 1950s and 60s) tend to create conditions favourable to the strengthening of reformist leaderships over the working class. In these conditions the politics of compromise and concession can win reforms from the bourgeoisie that, while they are important gains for the working class are, nonetheless, acceptable to the capitalists and do not threaten their fundamental interests. Reformists may strengthen their hold over the class in this time, but struggles for reforms can also result in the strengthening of working class organisation, making it harder for the bosses to repeal the measures. Of course, there is no automatic or inevitable triumph of reformism in periods of capitalist upswing, the outcome is always determined by struggle, and therefore always contingent on political conflicts – those within the working class, between the workers and the bosses, and, finally, in the ruling class itself over their willingness to compromise or not. “Subjective factors”, in the historical materialist lexicon, including the organisation and intervention of revolutionaries, can change the pattern and development of events: “in all periods, either of upswing or downswing, conscious communist leadership can intervene to modify, utilise, offset and even reverse, ‘spontaneous’ trends.”8

Crucial to a revolutionary understanding of social democracy is grasping the contradictions to which the reformist leaders are subject. Unlike leaders of other political parties, whose main social basis is likely to be the middle classes and the upper stratum of the working class, the social democrats must maintain the political leadership of the masses: their privileges, salaries, and their importance to the bourgeoisie are ultimately dependent on this. This means that social democracy can be more responsive to the demands of the working class, including its most advanced layers, than other parties. Not only can they move to the left under the pressure of the masses but the reformist ideas and values of the workers’ vanguard also find expression in the form of the left wing of the social democrats. At times, these “Lefts” may give the impression of seeking an impossible reconciliation of the interests of the working and capitalist classes but, in the end, their submission to capitalism and the bourgeois state will nearly always incline them to accept the ultimatums of the bourgeoisie.

The two decades following the Second World War are often seen as a “golden age” for social democracy, at least in Western Europe. This period certainly fits the model of an archetypal period of capitalist expansion, which created favourable conditions for the reformist leaderships of the working class to win concessions. The historic destruction of capital in the Second World War, along with access to aid and credit from the United States, facilitated a period of economic expansion almost unprecedented for its depth and longevity in the 20th century. Geopolitical factors also played a powerful determining role in developments. The existence of the Soviet Union, its creation of satellites in the occupied Warsaw Pact countries and then, in 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China, fostered anti-communist unity amongst the imperialist powers. US hegemony, economically and militarily, over Western Europe was accepted and its aid and loans were crucial to the post-war economic recovery. The western bourgeoisies feared workers’ revolution “at home” and this encouraged them to compromise with the working class, introducing universal welfare provisions and granting trade unions greater freedom to organise.

In Britain (1945), Germany (1966), and for long periods in Scandinavia, social democratic parties became recognised as legitimate and responsible parties of bourgeois government. In Italy and France, the official communist parties, also by this time transformed into bourgeois workers’ parties, were not trusted with the power of office but they did act as central pillars of bourgeois rule. Rather than use their base in the partisan movements to lead a post-war revolution they recognised the legitimacy of the institutions established by the Allies and used their influence in the unions to secure workplace agreements favourable to the bosses. Across the West, there was a widely held view amongst the bourgeoisie that classical economic prescriptions and protectionist attitudes to trade had caused the Great Depression and this led to a shift in economic orthodoxy towards Keynesianism. The state played a greater role in the organisation of investment and nationalisations established state monopolies in strategic industries, such as coal and steel. Technological and industrial development led to new mass markets in manufactured commodities and restrictions on foreign investment and international trade were relaxed. In contrast, controls on the movement of money-capital restricted speculation and tied finance capital to trade and industry, while a currency system based on fixed exchange rates and ultimately underpinned by a fixed dollar-gold parity further encouraged international trade.

A powerful synergy thus emerged in the post-war years between the favoured economic policies of the bourgeoisie and the programme of social democracy. This programme, for example expressed in the old British Labour Party’s Clause IV’s call for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, envisaged an accumulation of social reforms within the framework of capitalism. It neither proposed the expropriation of the capitalists nor transcended the bourgeois state in its democratic form; and was therefore not socialist, but a programme for a state capitalist market economy. There is no fundamental tension between this programme and capitalism; a state presence in the economy can provide opportunities for capital accumulation, for example, by creating (or guaranteeing) demand, introducing subsidies to encourage investment, or supplying industry with subsidised raw materials, energy and transport. What this economic model cannot do, however, is resolve capitalism’s crisis-tendencies and this was clearly evidenced by the classical over-accumulation crisis that hit the system in the 1970s.

The 50s and 60s may be widely viewed as a golden age of social democratic consensus but, while this might be true relatively speaking, it is often over stated. The class contradictions that are the sine qua non of social democracy created conflict and polarisation within these parties between the right and the left, while their relationship to the class as a whole was not crisis free. On the one hand, economic growth was seen by the social democratic right to vindicate their “realistic” approach to the demands of the bourgeoisie. On the other, increased legal rights to organise and the winning of progressive social reforms encouraged the working class to press on and demand more, and these aspirations could be reflected in the demands of social democracy’s left wing. At the economic level, the market ensured that the benefits of growth were not evenly felt even across the working class. Stratification and inequality, particularly between its skilled and unskilled sections, tended to remain high or even increase. Managing the ensuing discontent was an on-going problem for the social democrats, one that helps explain their political divisions.

There was also an increasing incorporation of the leaders of social democratic parties and labour organisations into the bourgeois state and higher society. The most developed example of this was the nearly four decades of social democratic rule in Sweden. But, in other western European countries, at least at a local and federal level, social democracy and the official communist parties could be just as hegemonic. The leaders of the labour movement, already, of course, a materially privileged stratum vis-à-vis their memberships, could generally rely on being consulted by the ruling bourgeois government. While this could result in winning concessions from the bosses, the more profound tendency was the political and social acculturation of the social democratic leaders with the bourgeoisie who identified their politics with ‘national’, that is, bourgeois, interests, as opposed to those of the working class. This had been a feature of the reformist wing of social democracy since the turn of the century but it clearly intensified further during the period of the long economic boom after the Second World War.

It is no wonder then that this period saw the first major attempts to push social democracy fundamentally rightwards. In Britain, rightwing leader Hugh Gaitskell attempted unsuccessfully to amend the Labour Party’s Clause IV, the symbol of the party’s commitment to state-capitalist reform. In West Germany, the right wing of social democracy was strengthened against the left by the party’s failure to win office in the two decades following the end of the war. Whereas Gaitskell in Britain had been unsuccessful, the right wing of the SPD successfully overturned the party’s formal commitment to Marxism and socialism when it passed the Godesberg Program in 1959. The left and right wings of social democracy played increasingly important functional roles. The “fundamental task of the right wing” was to command, “to be answerable to the bourgeoisie, to negotiate and co-operate with the state functionaries, to be a loyal and trustworthy executive for capitalism.” The left, in contrast, had to “keep contact with the masses, to maintain and revivify illusions amongst them that their needs and aspirations necessitate submission to the reformist bureaucracy and the parliamentarians.”9 The classic tendency was the cycle of revivified hopes of the masses when social democracy was in opposition, followed by disillusionment when it had been in office.

It might be tempting from a contemporary standpoint to look upon those social democratic leaders, like Tony Blair in Britain or Lionel Jospin in France, who became proponents of neoliberal attacks on working class gains, as embodying a qualitatively more opportunistic tendency within the social democratic tradition. But this is unhelpful, particularly if it leads to a romanticisation of social democracy in the long boom period. Opportunism, the discarding of principles in pursuit of short-term gains, has always been the lifeblood of reformism. It not only created a culture where selling the working class short was the norm, but also one where bourgeois values like the pursuit of self-interest and careerism trumped class solidarity. Ambitious social democratic politicians could pose left on one day only to move sharply rightwards once they were in office. In Britain, for example, Labour left-winger Barbara Castle was the first to propose anti-union laws in 1969. Her proposals formed the basis for the new Conservative government’s anti-union laws in 1971 and these prompted a working class rebellion that was to bring down that government in 1974. Thereafter, the pattern continued. A major left-wing opponent of Castle at the time had been James Callaghan who, once he became prime minister, championed working class pay restraint which led directly to the “winter of discontent” strikes in 1979 (and the subsequent downfall of the Labour government).

The united front and the workers’ party tactic10
The post-war period was one in which revolutionaries had to apply the united front tactic correctly if they were to break the hold of a social democracy that was, generally speaking, in a historically strong position. This meant placing demands on the workers’ leaders to struggle for the immediate interests of the class, demanding they adopt militant tactics and forms of organisation that strengthen the fighting capacity of the working class, and at all times making clear – in theory and practice – the fundamentally opposed programmes of reformism and revolutionary Marxism. In short, the twin errors of sectarianism and opportunism had to be avoided if the united front tactic was to be successfully applied.

Simple as this might sound, an erroneous approach to the united front plagued the two major components of the post-war Trotskyist tradition. The Fourth International split in 1953 into two wings, the International Secretariat and the International Committee. Gerry Healy, one of the leaders of the International Committee (IC) tradition argued a form of catastrophism that identified capitalism as being in a state of permanent crisis, always on the verge of fascism or revolution. The IC tradition considered the class to be imbued with revolutionary consciousness held back from revolution only by a thin layer of reformist leaders. Failing to see reformism, particularly left reformism, as a reflection of the reformist consciousness of the working class vanguard, they could not see the need for united front tactics. Instead, their propaganda organisation identified itself as “the revolutionary party” (calling itself the Workers Revolutionary Party) in preparation for the impending revolution. We see the opposite error in the Fourth International after its reuniification into the United Secretariat (USFI) in 1963, led by Ernest Mandel. Here, left reformism - particularly its left wing - is seen as embodying the “revolutionary process” and, consequently, open support is given to their programmes, including the aim of “reclaiming” social democratic parties that was espoused by various left reformists.

They might appear as opposites, but both of these erroneous methodologies ultimately share a view of the development of revolutionary consciousness as an objectivist schema. For these groups, winning the working class to revolutionary politics is not achieved through conscious struggle for a revolutionary programme but, principally, by the development of the objective situation.11 This minimises the importance of active intervention by socialists into the workers movement to develop the spontaneous class struggles into the direction of a coherent socialist consciousness. This sectarianism and opportunism are two sides of the same coin. The USFI in the 1970s, for example, turned sharply leftwards in response to the post-’68 radicalisation. But rather than confront reformism programmatically through the united front tactic, they looked for a “new vanguard”, first amongst students and youth, and later in radical petit bourgeois movements, like the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. They could at times appear very left in their denunciations of capitalism and imperialism but, ultimately, the Fourth International in this phase abstained from the struggle to break the working class vanguard from reformism with the united front tactic.12

In the classical Marxist tradition, the importance Lenin and Trotsky attached to an orientation towards the large workers’ organisations led them to view the workers’ party tactic – alternatively known as the “labour party tactic” – as the form the united front should take in countries where there were no large social democratic parties. Trotsky only fully conceptualised the tactic in the late 1930s, he argued the workers’ party tactic could be used to win the working class vanguard to the building of a revolutionary party in countries like the United States or Argentina that had little or no independent working class political tradition. Communists, Trotsky argued, should demand that the workers’ organisations, principally the trade unions, break from their alliances with the bourgeois parties and form a workers’ party. Given that the tactic was a variant of the united front tactic normally applied towards labour and social democratic parties, the Trotskyists placed no programmatic preconditions for unity with reformist workers who saw the need for a workers’ party. They would, nonetheless, always argue for the formation of a revolutionary workers’ party; one organised on democratic centralist lines and with a transitional action programme for the conquest of power by the working class. By first fighting for, and later forming, this united front, the communists hoped to have the struggle over programme out in front of a large section of the working class vanguard.

The optimal outcome was to win a majority and leadership of the new party. However, even in the event of the reformists consolidating a new party under their leadership, revolutionaries would be in far better position to win significant forces to a communist party than they would have been had they not participated in the struggle for a class independent party. The formation of a reformist party was not the aim of the workers’ party tactic, on the contrary, the tactic was aimed to obstruct this development by taking the fight for the revolutionary programme into movements for independent working class political representation. In this way the workers’ party tactic elaborated the method Marx and Engels had used to encourage the working class onto the political terrain in the 19th century; that is, of fighting alongside reformists in the unions (and even with anarchists and utopian socialists) for the formation of working class parties, while refusing to tail these forces politically and at all times seeking to give new workers’ party formations revolutionary leadership. It also further developed this method by linking it to the revolutionary programme developed by the Comintern in the early 1920s, and later codified by Trotsky and the Fourth International in the struggle against Stalin in the late 20s and 30s.

Lenin had first envisaged the workers’ party tactic as a means to develop a large following for the American communists in the early 1920s, but the American section of the Communist International went on to apply it erroneously. Though a fierce faction fight raged over the question in the American section, neither side understood Lenin’s tactic. One, led by Pepper, abandoned the struggle for class independence in favour of populism, and the other, led by Cannon, saw the formation of a reformist party as a necessary stage towards a communist party. Trotsky correctly identified the opportunist errors in both sides of the faction fight. Pepper had capitulated politically to the petit bourgeois farmers’ movement and increasingly advanced a form of utopian socialism based on small, individual agricultural production. Cannon’s opportunism, on the other hand, was towards the reformist leaders of the unions. Neither advanced an independent working class perspective based on a revolutionary action programme for the new party.

While correct in these criticisms, Trotsky’s initial conclusion was, however, one-sided and – unusually for him – undialectical. He equated the workers’ party tactic with Cannon’s position, that is as necessarily involving a reformist stage and, therefore, he rejected the tactic in its entirety as opportunist. He argued that, firstly, if a new party needed a mass upsurge in working class resistance then a “reformist stage” was unnecessary as a communist party could be built in circumstances like these. Alternatively, without a mass upsurge, he said the reformist leaders were likely to dominate it and this would be reactionary. In 1938, Trotsky rejected this earlier dichotomy by realising that there was a third option; the mass movement of workers for political representation could be turned against the reformist leaders of the working class.13 However, to a large degree, the opportunities to coalesce a workers’ party formation in the US had passed by this time.

The change in Trotsky’s thinking by the late 1930s was connected to his refinement of the transitional programme and method. He saw the fight for transitional demands as essential to overcome the isolation of the Fourth International in the face of a reformist and Stalinist dominated international workers’ movement. Just as each demand from the programme could be addressed as a united front demand to the working class and their leaderships, so too could the question of an independent workers’ party. Raising the demands individually as proposals for action for the class at any single moment could be done without dropping a single slogan or demand from the transitional programme as a whole.

It is important to emphasise that for Trotsky (and Lenin in the early 1920s) the workers’ party tactic was the form the united front should take in those countries without large social democratic or labour parties, that is, without a tradition of independent working class political action. Indeed, not withstanding their subsequent errors on the question, the American communists stated correctly in 1922 that:

“The working class of Europe has for a long time participated independently in political activities. Not so in the United States. Here the problem is not to unite existing political groups and organizations for common action but to awaken political class consciousness among the workers.”14

So, in the United States the workers’ party tactic (actually, the term used was labor party tactic) was seen as a means to awaken workers’ consciousness through the struggle for class independence on the political terrain. In Europe, in contrast, where large labour and social democratic parties existed, a different set of tasks was posed. Workers considered these parties their own and only through the course of struggle would they be broken from them. The appropriate tactic was therefore a united front tactic towards the social democratic parties. Lenin and Trotsky made the assumption, entirely correct in the given historical conditions, that, where large social democratic and labour parties existed, the fight for independent working class political representation, that is, the workers’ party tactic, would not make sense to the workers. The workers believed the struggle for class independence had been won long ago and that the labour and social democratic parties represented their interests independently of the bosses. Both these beliefs were illusory but workers would only come to realise this through the course of struggle. The problem was not simply that the idea of a new workers’ party would lack resonance in the class – even though this was likely to be the case. Applying the tactic in these circumstances would also, more importantly, encourage communists to abstain from the struggle to break the working class from the political leadership of reformist parties with a united front orientation. To raise the workers’ party tactic in these circumstances would therefore be profoundly wrong and liable to lead to fake workers’ party initiatives, that is small propaganda societies proclaiming themselves to be new workers’ parties although they lacked organic roots in the working class.

It could not be clearer, then, why Trotsky and Lenin never even considered raising the demand where there existed parties based upon the workers’ mass organisations. For some this might be enough to rule out entirely the application of the tactic today in the manner we have suggested. But a revolutionary strategy that is ossified and unresponsive to changes in historical conditions, or that does not take on board the evolution of class contradictions in the workers’ organisations, would be quite useless. Trotsky himself repeatedly insisted that the revolutionary programme “must correspond to the situation” and this is doubly true of revolutionary tactics and subtle differences of emphasis or orientation. If we are to avoid the danger of a dogmatic and unthinking orthodoxy, on the one hand, or riding roughshod over the past achievements of the revolutionary tradition on the other, then the task must be to apply the method and principles the classical Marxist tradition developed to contemporary problems of strategy and tactics.

Neoliberalism and social democracy
In the 1970s, the Keynesian economic model of the post-war boom fell victim to a classic crisis of capital over-accumulation, as opportunities for profitable capital investment were exhausted, posing the need for a sharp and socially damaging devaluation and destruction of capital. The Keynesian medicine of deficit-funded state spending and low borrowing costs to stimulate demand was intended to avoid a painful bout of capital destruction but it only achieved a decade of spiralling inflation, stagnate economic growth. It was also unable to halt a continuous rise in unemployment in the West throughout these years. The 1970s consequently saw class struggle and political turmoil in the West that was amplified further by militant movements confronting social and national oppression; from the youth radicalisation over Vietnam, militant Black Nationalism in the States, democratic struggles in France, Spain and Portugal, anti-colonial resistance in Ireland, Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, the Basque country, the movements for cultural and sexual freedom, the emergence of feminism and growing demands for women’s rights.

In the first instance, the bourgeois workers’ parties appeared to be the principal beneficiaries. They took office in Portugal, Spain and Britain, held on to power in Scandinavia and Germany, came close to power in Italy, and, after a quite tumultuous decade, the Socialist Party was elected to government in France (1981) too. Even in the United States, where there was of course no bourgeois workers’ party, a Democratic Party dominated Congress passed a series of socially liberal regulatory reforms in the early 1970s. It is an irony of history that they were signed into law by President Nixon with the words, “we are all Keynesians now”.15 Only a dialectical analysis of social democracy can appreciate its dynamic relationship to the class struggle across this decade; it both expressed the move to the left in the politics and aspirations of the working class and acted as a brake on this development and ultimately led the working class to defeat.

The bourgeois workers’ parties certainly moved to the left under pressure from the masses but their state capitalist programmes only aggravated the economic crisis. In France, the Mitterrand government, which included four communist party ministers, promised “socialism in 100 days” and set about implementing the 1972 Common Programme. This included some nationalisations, a limited wealth tax, a 39-hour week, increased holidays, social benefits, and improved workplace rights. But by 1983 unemployment was still rising and Mitterrand succumbed to bourgeois pressure (and pressure within his own party) to turn right (the “liberal turn”). In Britain, Labour was returned to office in 1974 on the back of the miners’ strike, settled the dispute, but then faced a state fiscal crisis, galloping inflation and further working class discontent.

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1980s, principally in the US and Britain but only after it had been tested in Chile, under the western backed dictatorship of General Pinochet, as a doctrinal critique of three decades of Keynesian economic management. It advocated a return to classical liberal principles, arguing that the economic role of the state should be limited to defending private property rights and the free market, not to providing universal welfare or organising investment, which only undermined the operation of the market. Rejecting state-capitalism outright, neoliberalism advocated privatisation of industry, the dismantling of the state monopolies and the creation of markets where none had previously existed or had been removed via nationalisation; for example, in education, water and energy supply. The neoliberal regimes par excellence were the Thatcher and Reagan governments in Britain and the US respectively. In the first instance, they came to power determined to adopt a monetarist policy for money supply in order to fight inflation, regardless of the impact on employment. By raising the cost of borrowing, they starved the system of credit, forcing a major destruction of capital. Thatcher and Reagan’s programme, however, went far beyond an anti-inflationary money supply policy; their aim was the strategic defeat of the working class and an end to the politics of social compromise.

The neoliberals supplied a theorisation of capitalist class interest and provided a set of policies that aimed to reverse the bourgeoisies’ declining economic fortunes. The crises of the 70s had hit capitalist wealth hard. Sharp devaluations in asset values – stocks, shares, property, real estate – went alongside a devaluation of money-capital in the form of spiralling inflation (a process David Harvey calls the “wealth crash”). The Keynesian economic model of the previous decades no longer appeared to be in capitalists’ interests. The accommodation they had reached with the unions lowered their share of national income. In the US, for example, the share of national income held by the top one per cent fell from a pre-war high of 16 per cent to 8 per cent in the first three post-war decades.16 As David Harvey puts it, “to have a stable share of an increasing pie is one thing. But when growth collapsed in the 1970s, when real interest rates went negative and paltry dividends and profits were the norm, the capitalists suddenly felt that their wealth was under threat.”17

No longer willing to continue the social compromise with the working classes that social democracy had been key to developing over the previous three decades, the bourgeoisie led a political offensive against the working class to achieve a major redistribution of wealth in its favour. This did not only mean introducing market reforms that undermined workers’ gains. Trade union power was to be curtailed through repressive legislation and breaking the strength and power of the most militant sections of the working class. The sharp destruction of capital in the 1980s led to large-scale lay offs, factory closures and mass unemployment. Striking workers, famously the NUM in Britain and PATCO in the US, faced fierce repression and an ideological offensive identifying them as the “enemy within”.

Where it was in office, social democracy did not immediately follow Thatcher and Reagans model of carry out attacks on workers’ gains and inflicting strategic defeats on the class. However, the perceived failure of the Keynesian economic policies of the previous three decades did lead to major crises in the parties across Europe. The social democratic right wing, anxious to prove their loyalty to capital’s interests, pushed for a more or less camouflaged monetarist, anti-inflationary policy. The left drew strength from the radicalisation of the working class in the course of the crisis but would not fight for a programme that took working class resistance as its starting point. Instead they proposed further state-capitalist reforms. When these failed, the left was discredited.

Unable to present a working alternative to, first, monetarism, then neoliberalism, the left declined and the right gained the upper hand, opening a long period of rightward drift by European social democracy. In France, Mitterrand pursued an essentially monetarist, anti-inflationary, pro-capital destruction course from 1983 onwards. In Sweden, the social democracy combined anti-inflationary measures with tax cuts for corporations and the rich, leading to widespread disillusionment and their electoral defeat in 1988. A trend indeed developed for the conservative parties to win consecutive elections, with social democracy left in the “political wilderness”. In Germany, the SPD lost the 1982 elections and did not return to power for sixteen years, in 1998 led by Gerhard Schroeder. In Britain, Labour lost power in 1979 and only returned to office in 1997 under Tony Blair. In France, the Socialist Party suffered a landslide election defeat in 1993, lost the presidency in 1995 and to this day has not won it back.

The basic trend, then, has been for the social democratic parties in Europe to move steadily to the right since the 1980s and this can be summarised schematically. First, Keynesian and state-capitalist economic policy went into crisis as its policies exacerbated the crisis of over-accumulation that had hit the system by the mid-1970s. Second, this led to divisions between left and right in the social democratic parties over how to respond. For example, in Britain, following Labour’s election defeat in 1979, the left came close to winning the party leadership, prompting a right wing split in 1982. In Sweden, social democratic trade unionists launched the Workers’ List party at the beginning of the 1990s in reaction to the recession, the decline of the social democratic parties support, its passivity in the class struggle and its drive to strike deals with the bourgeois parties. While these movements suffered from mis-leadership they nonetheless demonstrated that sections of the vanguard organised in social democracy were willing to take a stand against the party leadership’s submission to bourgeois demands. Finally, the result of this period of crisis was the generalised political defeat of the left vis-à-vis the right wing of the social democracy across Europe. Important defeats for the working class, though not always of a strategic character like in Britain, amplified this tendency further, as did the increasing electoral dominance of the openly bourgeois parties. Another important factor was the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The ruling classes successfully presented this as a defeat not only of “communism” but also for all political forces to the left of the new, neoliberal centre ground.

It is in the nature of world capitalism and the division of the world through the nation state system that this general trend developed unevenly with a great deal of spatial and temporal variation, that is, at different moments in different states the tendency could be more or less pronounced. Nonetheless, the general direction of development is clear enough. The defeat of the social democratic left, the new neoliberal centre ground, defeats for the working class and, finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union, all triggered a sharp shift of social democracy to the right. By 1994, the bourgeois workers’ parties had hit their lowest point, out of power in every major western European country except Spain.

However, workers’ experience of the neo-liberal policies of the openly bourgeois parties did, in time, begin to revive the prospects of the social democratic and labour parties, albeit in the very different economic and political context of “globalisation.” The right wing of social democracy now argued for an accommodation to the “new realities” of globalisation and with that the neoliberal demands of the capitalists for dismantling of the past gains of the working class movement in the areas such as social reform, welfare and the nationalised industries, alongside support for financial liberalisation, free trade, and the creation of new markets for capital accumulation. That the right wing was generally successful in enforcing such programmes was not inevitable but reflected the weakness of the left and the greatly weakened influence of the broader working class movement within the parties.

Social democracy in Europe and revolutionary strategy
The move to the right of European social democracy took many specific, concrete forms; the “Third Way” in Britain, the “Neue Mitte” in Germany, “social liberalism” in France, but it was, nonetheless, a general process. In class terms it represented an historic strengthening of the bourgeois forces within social democracy at the expense of its working class base and constituency. In some cases the shift to the right appeared to point towards the constitution of openly bourgeois parties with an explicitly capitalist programme, in which the working class was considered, at best, as only one interest group amongst many. But only in Italy, and relatively recently, have we seen this process taken to its logical conclusion with the creation of the Democratic Party. (Though the bourgeois workers’ party that dissolved itself into the new formation was the Democratic Socialists which originated in the Italian Communist Party, not the social democracy as such.) Such a development effectively resolves the contradiction within social democracy in favour of the bourgeoisie.

In Britain, Blair’s “third way” appeared to suggest a similarly fundamental break with the party’s working class base. Blair did not have a background in the unions or working class movement and quite openly held the view that the split between organised labour and the Liberal Party, represented by the creation of the Labour Party, was a historical mistake. The “third way” was not posed as a new compromise between labour and capital but as a break with working class politics per se. The Labour Party was said to be “modernising” by enthusiastically taking up the capitalists neoliberal demands and the Blair government took these policies much further than even Thatcher had done. But it would have taken a major crisis in the party’s relationship with the unions to prompt the right wing to actually break the union link. As long as the trade unions were ultimately willing to acquiesce, with the exception of motions at a powerless party conference and on-off protest strikes, there was no need for the right-wing to push for the constitution of an openly bourgeois party. Hence, while the “neoliberalisation” of social democracy may have appeared to suggest a future without bourgeois workers’ parties, the experience in Britain shows that these parties can continue to play an important role for capital. So long, that is, as the trade union bureaucracy are able to keep a lid on rank and file anger against the neoliberal programme.

Blairism was, however, distinctive in the extent of its “bourgeoisification”. (By which we mean a strengthening of the explicitly bourgeois pole inside the social democratic parties against the working class). In both policy and ideological terms, the “third way” marked an explicit rejection of class politics and any pretence to independent working class political representation. This was rarely the case with social democracy elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, for example, the SPD’s Agenda 2010 was not presented as a progressive transformation in the party’s values but precisely as a new, social compromise that would advantage capital. Schroeder openly asked the working class to sacrifice its interests in favour of an economic programme that would restore the competitiveness of German capitalism. Part of the reason for this difference, of course, was that Britain had already experienced Thatcherism, which had succeeded in shifting the balance of class forces quite decisively in capital’s favour and had also undermined working class self-consciousness. Blair only expressed historical continuity with this programme rather than facing, as Schroeder did, the task of delivering fundamental blows against the social gains of German workers.

British neoliberalism was indeed the most advanced in Europe and this meant the Blair government played a certain “vanguard role” in pushing European governments along the path of major attacks on working class social gains. He might not have succeeded had it not been for the widely held assumption that neoliberal economic prescriptions had been a success for British and American capitalism. Financial parasitism, credit intensive growth, the re-distribution of wealth to the rich, the expansion of the precarious and low paid workforce; these all helped successfully disguise Anglo-American capitalism’s stagnation tendencies. Neoliberals colonised the European Commission, while European agreements, notably the Lisbon Agenda and later the constitution and its successor, upheld the new neoliberal consensus. It is difficult to overestimate the role social democracy has played in pushing forward the neoliberal agenda over the last decade. Consider, for instance, the political origins of the leaders and forces behind the Lisbon strategy (2000 – 2004): it was drawn up by Romano Prodi of the Italian centre left when head of the European Commission, it was backed by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party in France, by Blair’s Labour Government in Britain, and was pushed aggressively by Gerhard Schroeder’s SPD in Germany.

The result of this process of social democratic neoliberalisation has been a profound undermining of illusions in social democracy within vanguard sections of the working class. The historic decline and marginalisation of the left wing of social democracy, and the consequent inability of activists to use channels within their parties to overturn the neoliberal agenda, was key to this process. Whereas, in the past, the social democratic left had helped to revive working class illusions in social democracy, they were now no longer strong enough to provide a politically viable challenge to the dominant right wing. Neoliberalisation continued and accelerated the polarisation between the left and right of social democracy, not because of a leftward radicalisation but, on the contrary, because the right of the party moved even further rightwards. Unlike two decades earlier, this polarisation tended not to lead to struggles within social democracy but rather towards splits and ruptures.

Where this has occurred, the process has shared certain general features. Attacks from social democracy led to widespread anger, discontent and resistance amongst the class. The vanguard of the working class in particular, who would have once been the main constituency for the social democratic left, felt that they lacked any means to reverse policies within the party. At the same time, the scale and depth of the neoliberal offensive on workers’ social gains systematically undermined the claim of the left wing of social democracy that the party continued to defend working class interests. The tendency, consequently, has been for the workers’ vanguard to become increasingly aware of their lack of independent political representation. At the same time, some forces within social democracy, including the trade unions and the left, have been forced to question their own positions, such was the aggression of the neoliberal offensive that their party carried out on behalf of capital.

Something approaching this scenario developed in several western European countries, particularly France, Britain and Germany. While, of course, the historical differences are considerable, what nonetheless made these circumstances similar to the United States in the inter-war years (and today, for that matter) was the potential for popularising the demand for independent working class political representation across the working class. Another similarity was the weakness of the forces of the far left that only represented a small section of the working class and were divided into ideologically defined currents large and small. However, it was these two general features, the aggressive neoliberal offensive carried out by social democracy and the weakness of the far left, that gave particular importance to the issue of communist tactics relating to the crisis in working class political representation. They may even have given the “new workers’ party tactic” a relatively general applicability, though this will be qualified later.

The reality that, today, the majority of the working class vanguard is unlikely to enter the political terrain through social democracy, should not be seen as negating the “political question”. The working class resistance has to have a strategy for power if it is to present an alternative to social democracy’s neoliberal offensive. In these circumstances, the task of revolutionaries is to find a way to organise the most advanced sections of the class that are fighting neoliberalism and pose the need for a political organisation that will fight for power. The “spontaneous” development of the class struggle would also be expected to throw up movements for a political alternative in such circumstances. Sure enough, we have also seen this in recent years. The far left groups were presented with an historic opportunity to put themselves alongside movements for working class political representation/new left parties and to fight to win them to a revolutionary political programme.

Had the left organisations that recognised this opportunity, principally the International Socialist Tendency, the Committee for a Workers’ International and the Fourth International, taken more seriously the revolutionary tradition of the early Comintern and Trotsky’s Fourth International, they would have looked immediately to the workers’ party tactic to provide a set of methodological principles to guide this work. Clearly, where there are already existing large social democratic parties this would become the “new workers’ party tactic”, that is a struggle to build a working class party committed to independently representing workers’ interests as opposed to the “old” workers’ party, which has submitted to the neoliberal demands of capital. Had the far left taken Trotsky’s position and made it their own they would not have seen the formation of reformist parties as the aim of the tactic or as a necessary stage towards fully revolutionary parties. As Trotsky explained to his comrades from the American SWP in 1938:

“Are we in favour of the creation of a reformist labour party? No. Are we in favour of a policy which can give to the trade unions the possibility to put its weight upon the balance of the forces? Yes. It can become a reformist party-it depends upon the development. Here the question of program comes in. I mentioned yesterday and I will underline it today-we must have a program of transitional demands, the most complete of them being a workers’ and farmers’ government. We are for a party, for an independent party of the toiling masses who will take power in the state. We must concretize it-we are for the creation of factory committees, for workers’ control of industry through the factory committees.”18

In this extract, Trotsky insists that the political programme and, therefore, the class nature of the party, will be decided by struggle. He also rejects outright the position he had himself held in the early 1930s that a labour party tactic was either unnecessary or reactionary. In Trotsky, the revolutionary programme is not an immutable or static declaration but a living set of principles that has to be concretised to the specific challenges faced by the working class struggle at any given historical moment. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance Trotsky placed on the transitional programme for the implementation of the workers’ party tactic. Both the immediate and transitional demands from the programme could be raised at different points as united front demands. As the revolutionary Comintern put it, “Every action, for even the most trivial everyday demand, can lead to revolutionary awareness and revolutionary education; it is the experience of struggle that will convince workers of the inevitability of revolution and the historic importance of communism.”19 By fighting for the necessary strategy and tactics to win a struggle, not limiting the fight to what the reformists were willing to accept at any moment, and using the fight to strengthen working class organisation, revolutionaries could show in practice that they stood for the independent interests of the working class.

For Trotsky and the early Communist International, the united front was intended to achieve “not just agitational but also organisational results. Every opportunity must be used to establish organisational footholds among the working masses themselves (factory committees, supervisory commissions made up of workers from all the different parties and unaligned workers, action committees, etc.)”20 The fight to strengthen working class organisation from below was the key to developing class struggle structures that challenged the bureaucratic forms of organisation favoured by the reformists. To this can be added the militant methods of struggle, such as the indefinite strike, that can achieve quick victories and embolden the workers to struggle further. Last of all, there are the transitional demands themselves, those that challenge the power and freedom of capital, either in the workplace or at the state, political level, to enforce its will on the class.

This transitional programme and method had to, and still has to, guide revolutionary intervention into new party movements. While the revolutionary action programme should be put forward in its entirety at any founding party conference, different slogans can at different points be emphasised in the movement based on a concrete reading of the conjuncture and the tasks facing the working class. Nonetheless, generally speaking, the fight against reformism takes place from day one in the movement, in particular by emphasising class struggle on the streets and in the workplaces against the parliamentary fetishism of reformist politicians. Every opportunity needs to be seized to organise the struggle on the streets. For revolutionaries, the tactic is one orientated to the vanguard of the working class: those who are thrown into conflict with social democracy and are looking for an alternative to the left of it. Given that the concept of “the vanguard” is one we use relatively, we can say more boldly that every workers’ movement for an independent party in history has been, initially, a movement of the vanguard of the class. The idea of a new party is likely to resonate with very large numbers, but revolutionaries need to focus on those most “advanced workers” who are prepared to fight, to take up the battle against the capitalists in their workplaces and on the streets and give a militant leadership to wider layers of the class. So, while attention should be focused on the vanguard, every effort must be made to turn the vanguard towards the broader masses. Ultimately, as we have stated, the aim of the workers’ party tactic was to coalesce a political organisation of the workers’ vanguard around a fighting, revolutionary action programme.

The new party experience in Germany
As we have seen, the re-elaboration of the “workers’ party tactic” as the “new workers’ party tactic” was rooted in historical analysis of general trends in European social democracy. Whereas the call for a new workers’ party would once have been wrong and counter-productive in countries dominated by large social democratic parties, in recent years it has become an important means of relating in a principled way to splits from social democratic parties. This way of viewing the tactic as one appropriate to specific historical circumstances should encourage us not to see the general historical trends we have identified as an irreversible schema. It would be foolish to see two decades of social democratic acquiescence to neoliberal demands as evidence of a fundamental transformation in their class character or as guaranteeing such a transformation at some point in the future: it remains a question of struggle and therefore a process imbued with a great deal of contingency. The new workers’ party tactic should not be turned into a strategy, that is, a universally applicable element of communist policy. The continued existence of social democracy, its organic links to the working class and, indeed, the ideological crisis faced by bourgeois capitalism today, could serve to re-strengthen its links to the class and re-energise illusions in its capacity to defend workers’ interests. Neither should we assume that the new workers’ party tactic is appropriate to all western European states where there are large social democratic parties. It is in the nature of capitalism and the state system that general trends will not exist everywhere or, where they do exist, that they will take different forms.

The experience of the last five years in Germany is important to analyse because it provided in some respects “ideal type” conditions for applying the tactic, as a serious split developed in social democracy prompting moves to a new party of the left. It also illustrated how the tactic can run its course once the new party has been consolidated programmatically. In 2003, Gerhard Schroeder set out his Agenda 2010 proposals that constituted a major attack on the post-war social gains of German workers. They included major tax cuts and sharp cuts in pensions and unemployment benefit (Hartz IV). It is no exaggeration to say that this was the biggest programme of cuts to the German welfare system in the post-war period. It prompted a major outbreak of working class struggle including, in April 2004, demonstrations across Germany organised by the trade unions that brought some 500,000 workers onto the streets. They were followed by the Monday demonstrations of unemployed workers, which, at their peak, organised thousands of workers across Germany in weekly demonstrations. At the same time, the Wahlalternative (“Electoral Alternative”, later WASG) was founded by a coalition of significant regional leaders of the engineering union IG Metall in Bavaria, all previously SPD members, and a grouping of Keynesian social scientists around the Eurocommunist newspaper “Socialism” which also exercised influence within the public sector union, ver.di. Its explicit aim was to stand candidates against the social democracy.

The protests were, largely thanks to the betrayal of the leaders of the German trade union federation, the DGB, defeated and the Agenda 2010 proposals passed. At first, this appeared to be extremely costly for the social democracy. Poor opinion poll showings and a disastrous result in the European elections (21 per cent of the vote) in 2004 led to Schroeder’s resignation from the party chairmanship but not as German chancellor. In regional elections in the social democratic heartland of North-Rhine Westphalia in 2005, the SPD was defeated by the conservative CDU and called an early federal election in the same year. SPD support actually held up to a degree in that election (at 34 per cent) putting them just one point behind Angela Merkel’s CDU. But the elections were notable for a polarisation between left and right. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), which was in favour of an aggressive neoliberal restructuring of German capitalism, scored 10 per cent of the vote. On the left, a joint slate between the WASG, the former SPD finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, and the post-Stalinist PDS ran under the banner “the Left Party” (die Linkspartei) and won 8.7 per cent of the vote, returning 54 deputies. Earlier in the year, the SPD had been showing just 25 per cent support in opinion polls. We can say with some confidence that the reason the vote held up compared to this lowly figure was that many working class voters recognised that a coalition of the openly neoliberal FDP and the two conservative parties (CDU and CSU) behind Angela Merkel would mean even greater attacks on the working class. At the same time, the showing for the Left Party indicated a vanguard of the working class had broken from social democracy to the left. In short, German society had plainly undergone a profound polarisation as a result of the struggles over Agenda 2010.

The WASG/PDS/Die Linke was clearly the principal political beneficiary of the struggles against neoliberalism of 2003 – 2004. Prior to the 2005 elections, the PDS was the only outspoken opponent of the proposals in the federal parliament, although it only had two representatives due to a poor showing in the 2002 elections. However, it was itself a thoroughly consolidated bourgeois workers’ party and it had a strategic orientation to governing as a junior coalition partner with the SPD. In the German länder of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin, where it was in government with the SPD, it actively implemented the Agenda laws. The WASG, meanwhile, brought together sections of the German trade union bureaucracy, particularly middle ranking regional officials and former SPD members who, while more principled in their opposition to Agenda 2010 than the PDS, did not advance even a reformist socialist programme, that is, one with a socialist goal, but rather stood for a “labour and social justice” programme based on a defence of social welfare and limited Keynesianism within a capitalist economy. In this situation, it was essential not only for revolutionaries to intervene within this developing political formation but also to wage a struggle against this reformist and class collaborationist programme.

The role of the PDS in implementing the Agenda laws in the länder where they were in government was a particular source of conflict within the movement. It led to the development of the Network Left Opposition, first in Berlin and later nationally, involving far left groups and also unaffiliated left activists. This section of the new party movement did not have illusions in the PDS but understood that it was not in any sense a class struggle party but rather a consolidated social democratic force. The danger was that the movement for a new party would be derailed into simply strengthening the PDS, which up to that point was an ageing party suffering a steady decline in its membership that had polled less than the five per cent required for the federal parliament list in 2002 (its two representatives were constituency elected deputies). At the same time, the PDS paper membership, though in decline, was far larger than the WASG and it would dominate the merged party and quickly consolidate it along social democratic lines. An important struggle in the new party process was the standing of left candidates against the PDS in the Berlin local elections of 2006. Though the results did not mark a breakthrough for the left opposition to the PDS, the latter did very poorly in the elections, losing nearly half their support and this was clearly due to their role in implementing neoliberal reforms at the Berlin länder level.

The existence of the PDS both stimulated and derailed the new party movement. On the one hand, the movement illustrated that the existence of a left social democratic party, like the PDS, alongside the mass social democracy, does not in itself mean sections of the working class will not take steps towards addressing their political representation. Concretely this was because the PDS had never succeeded in breaking through in the West German states where it was still viewed by the working class with suspicion because of its Stalinist heritage. Oskar Lafontaine and the WASG were important in giving the new project legitimacy in the eyes of these workers. Nonetheless, the PDS was able to provide an existing party infrastructure for the project, including representatives in the federal parliament and over 6,000 councillors in eastern Germany, and this obviously helped it to electoral success. However, none of this made the consolidation of the Left Party around a social democratic programme inevitable; it was a product of struggle and therefore of contingent events and actions that could have occurred differently.

In particular, the fate of the Left Party cannot be viewed in isolation from the defeat of the movement on the streets against Agenda 2010. It is somewhat ironic that the Left Party-PDS proved to be the principal political beneficiaries – pace the FDP – of the success of the German bourgeoisie in pushing through these major attacks on the social welfare system. Had the movement forced the withdrawal of the Agenda legislation on the streets then, at the very least, working class organisation would have been strengthened and the class emboldened to take steps towards an offensive. This would have created conditions favourable to the development of a class struggle, even a revolutionary, vanguard party. Therefore, it was essential for a revolutionary intervention into the new party movement, to present a strategy for victory, including the general strike against the Agenda programme and for fighting co-ordinations at the local level, that is, for “organisational not just agitational” results. Every opportunity had to be taken to present such a strategy to the class and to counter-pose it to the reformist strategy offered by the WASG and Linkspartei. At times, such an intervention could be more important than the unity of the new party movement; for example, in the Berlin state elections presenting a class struggle alternative to the continued neoliberal programme of the SPD-PDS government at the elections was quite correct. Indeed, not to have taken this opportunity would have constituted, in effect, tailing the political leadership of the PDS, as some far left groups, notably Linksruck (German SWP) did, and letting their betrayals go without electoral challenge.

This experience underlines the importance of Trotsky’s methodology, based on the transitional programme and the united front, to a revolutionary workers’ party tactic that avoids the twin errors of opportunism and sectarianism. The experience in Germany is also instructive as it shows that opportunities to utilise the new workers’ party tactic will invariably have certain temporal limits. A window of opportunity can create conditions favourable to a break from an established bourgeois workers’ party, lead to a new party movement which concludes with the formation of another, albeit more left, bourgeois workers’ party. In these conditions, which now exist in Germany, the working class vanguard are likely to have illusions in the new bourgeois workers’ party. To continue with the call for a new workers’ party would, therefore, not make sense to the vanguard, because they believe a “new workers’ party” has just been founded and deserves their support. Here, then, united front tactics towards the new bourgeois workers’ party, possibly up to and including entryism, will be important to break these illusions.

Lessons of the tactic in modern Europe
What does the German experience tell us about the concrete pre-conditions for operating the new workers’ party tactic? An understanding of this is clearly important if the use of the tactic is not to lead to fake new party initiatives that are little more than ideological currents and to encourage sectarianism towards the existing organisations of the working class. As noted initially, this was not a problem for Trotsky and Lenin as they did not consider operating the tactic in circumstances where there were already existing, large social democratic parties. The question becomes more complicated once the tactic is operated where such parties do exist.

Generally speaking, we can say there must exist empirical indicators in the class struggle that suggest a rupture and breakage between the working class vanguard and their traditionalsocial democratic organisations. However, this does not mean an organised break with social democracy must already have occurred to operate the tactic. Indeed, this would be a “tailist” strategy, that is, responding on an empirical-pragmatic basis to events rather than developing a strategy based upon general, concrete developments and trends. This is important because revolutionaries can play a role in pushing for a break with social democracy by fighting for the unions and left organisations to take steps towards a new working class party. But taking the decision to place this emphasis on new workers’ party agitation can only be made according to a concrete analysis of the class struggle and its direction of development: we need in particular to be able to identify the existence of certain pre-conditions for the tactic. First of all there needs to be widespread disillusionment and anger amongst the working class towards social democracy which have brought under strain the party’s relationship to the class. Which issues and how this manifests itself will of course vary. It might, for instance, arise after a period of social democratic government or after social democracy has failed to fight against a vicious attack carried through by the openly bourgeois parties.

Second, intensified class struggle has exposed social democracy’s loyalties to the bourgeoisie. This may not necessarily be the result an intensive period of class struggle by workers against capital, as we have seen with the neoliberal offensive of the last decade, it could result from a heightened period of struggle by capital against the working class. It could also arise from a struggle against a war or other oliticla issue. Third, a feeling of crisis should exist in the relationship between social democracy’s left wing and the working class vanguard. If the vanguard can see a fight within the party to reverse the reactionary policies is un-winnable, then demands for a break from the party, including the demand that the social democratic left wing leaders should lead that break, can be popularised. This is perhaps the most important condition because the new workers’ party tactic is one that is necessarily focused upon the most politically advanced layers of workers, those that have broken with social democracy to the left and see the need for a working class alternative. Even so, a militant but isolated vanguard should not be encouraged to break prematurely, that is, if social democracy still has widespread support from the masses.

At the same time, there are concrete conditions that also indicate the application of the tactic would be incorrect and these tend to be the opposite of the above stated conditions. If the social democratic left remains significant and continues to express the reformist illusions of the working class vanguard, then the workers’ party tactic is not likely to apply. If the left wing of social democracy and the vanguard are able to push the whole of the social democratic party to the left on certain issues, then this also is likely to make the new workers’ party tactic incorrect. Last of all there is the question of class struggle intensity. For instance, if the scale and depth of the neoliberal offensive carried through by social democracy in a particular country are not significant in relation, for example, to the rest of Europe, then working class anger is likely to be ameliorated and the view “it could be worse” may be widespread amongst large sections of workers. In such circumstances, which can be seen, for example, in Sweden, the new workers’ party is again likely to be incorrect. It should also be noted that a period where social democracy is out of office might not necessarily revivify left wing illusions amongst the vanguard. For example, in Britain, if Labour were to lose the next election, this may not lead to a strengthening of the left wing of the party. But nothing, of course, is decided in advance; it depends on the struggles ahead.

These general guidelines are not absolute prescriptions. In any case, listing out some general pre-conditions is not likely to stop arguments over whether the tactic should be used here or there because agreeing the pre-conditions might be easy in comparison with the task of proving whether or not they are present. Practice will often be the best guide. Just as Lenin argued that “agitation is a dialogue with the masses”, we also need to be flexible and responsive in our tactics. Even when the workers’ party tactic, for instance, is operated it must never lead revolutionaries to cease placing demands on social democracy, and this is particularly true where it is utilised over relatively long periods. It is perfectly possible to place the demand for a new party on the social democratic left, while also placing demands on them to use party channels to fight the bosses’ offensive.

The LCR and the New Anticapitalist Party in France
In Germany, the new party movement took the form of a split from social democracy followed by a fusion with an existing, relatively more left, bourgeois workers’ party. In France, we have seen a different course of development. The tensions between the social democracy, the French Socialist Party, and its working class base arising from its neoliberal attacks, went alongside a long period of radicalisation of French workers and youth from the 1995 general strike onwards. At the same time, the historic party of the non-social democratic workers, the French Communist Party, became discredited owing to its participation in the Jospin government between 1997 and 2002 and its continued strategic aspiration to enter government with social democracy thereafter. There were certainly similarities with the German situation. The PDS also suffered a collapse in support at the 2002 elections in Germany and it is unlikely it would have made a breakthrough had it not been for the split from social democracy and the fusion with Oscar Lafontaine and the WASG. But, while in Germany the crisis in social democracy led to the formation of a larger bourgeois workers’ party, the Left Party, in France, we have seen the formation of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).

This initiative had been launched by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) following the success the party had in the 2007 president elections, where LCR candidate Olivier Besancenot returned a historically high score of 1.5 million votes (4.1 per cent). Even more significant was the fact that this total was equivalent to the combined votes of all the other left candidates, including the French Communist Party’s Marie Buffet. At the same elections, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected promising to launch historic attacks on the French working class with the aim of restoring the competitiveness of French capitalism. The 2007 elections saw the beginnings of sharp changes in the French political landscape with an increasing polarisation between the left and right evident across society. Since the 2007 elections, the LCR has pushed on with the new party initiative forming around 400 local committees for a new party, which, in addition to LCR members, trade unionists and social movement activists, have also drawn in large numbers of French workers and youth new to politics. Significantly, the LCR made a point of defining the new initiative around the principle of not joining with the Socialist Party to form a government. This was a barely disguised, and quite correct, challenge to the French Communist Party; demanding they break with their historic orientation to ruling as a junior partner in a Socialist Party led government.

At the same time, the election of Sarkozy threw the Socialist Party into a crisis with different factions jostling for position within the party. With French society polarising between left and right, support for the Socialist Party’s version of “soft” neoliberalism, that is, only limited attacks on French workers’ social gains, consequently put their electoral support under serious strain. Throughout 2008, the NPA was able to put the left wing of social democracy under enormous pressure, as the NPA increasingly came to express the political radicalisation of the most advanced sections of the French working class that are the traditional constituency for social democracy’s left wing and the French Communist Party. It is not surprising, then, that Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marc Dolez, the leaders of the Socialist Party left, walked out of the party and declared the formation of the Parti de Gauche (PdG). Consciously modelled on the Linkspartei, that Oskar Lafontaine spoke at its founding rally in Paris is telling in itself, the aim of the PdG was plainly to sabotage the prospects for the NPA project and to utilise the disillusionment with the Socialist Party to build another social democratic party. Meanwhile, for the Communist Party, whose support had been haemorrhaging since 2002, the formation of a new party offered the opportunity to reverse its electoral decline, by repackaging itself in a new party not tainted either by its Stalinist history or the role it had played in Lionel Jospin’s government.

In France, then, we again see the profound pressures that the neoliberal offensive and workers’ resistance to it generated on the existing parties of the working class. As in Germany and Italy, this has led to a process involving splits and re-composition of the workers’ parties. Unlike in either of those countries, however, a far left grouping, the LCR, which had been only 3,000 members strong, played a leading role in drawing wider forces from the working class into a new party initiative. Certainly the LCR were helped in this by the favourable class struggle conditions. Though the French workers have not marched irrevocably forward since 1995, they have succeeded in defeating important components of the neoliberal offensive (notably the CPE) and even where they have been defeated, such as in the first wave of resistance to Sarkozy in autumn 2007, this did not have a strategic character, that is, it did not fundamentally damage their capacity to resist future attacks. By being willing to take principled positions on the anticapitalist make up of the new party and against joining Socialist Party governments, and, furthermore, by taking a bold initiative into the working class, the LCR’s position has great merits against the position of other far left currents in Europe.

Despite these positive features, the LCR position, however, remains problematic and certainly does not constitute a revolutionary new workers’ party tactic. Firstly, there remains a great deal of ambiguity on the political basis of the new initiative. The LCR have insisted that the new party will be ‘feminist’, ‘ecologist’, ‘socialist’, but they have been equally adamant it should not be Leninist or Trotskyist. While it is very good that the LCR have made a principle of not joining a Socialist Party government, nowhere have they promised not to join a capitalist government per se. Indeed, leading figures within the LCR and the Fourth International have drawn on the experiences of populist government in Latin America to argue that under certain conditions it would be legitimate for revolutionaries to join a capitalist government. Daniel Bensaïd for example has rejected as a “simplification” the counter-position between organs of working class power, based on factory councils or “sovietic” forms of organisation, and bourgeois democratic, that is, capitalist, legislatures.21 What is striking about Bensaïd’s argument is that he does not engage with the classical Marxist challenge to his position; that the unelected institutions of the bourgeois state, in particular the police and coercive apparatuses, would take anti-democratic measures against a government intent on socialist transformation.

The LCR’s position amounts to an equivocation on fundamental elements of the revolutionary strategy. As we have suggested above, resolving such a lack of clarity on the programme of the party is not a question for some time in the future but is sure to result in practical differences over how to advance and develop the contemporary class struggles. It might seem easy to put off a decision on the revolutionary or reformist strategy, or to invent a schema that appears to combine elements of both, but the class struggle repeatedly poses the question in sharp terms. Historically, parties that have vacillated between reform and revolution, organisations Marxists call “centrist”, have, once they begin to transcend the stage of an organisation that merely disseminates ideas and become genuine political parties, seen the struggle between reform and revolution take the form of disputes over the emphasis given to the electoral or extra-parliamentary terrains. In the American Socialist Party, for example, whose leaders were influenced by the utopian socialist thinker Ferdinand Lassalle, very radical denunciations of capitalism and calls for socialist revolution were combined with an almost exclusive focus on electoral politics. Naturally the corrective to this danger lies in the transitional programme and method; where the principal role of the party is to fight in the working class struggle to develop embryonic forms of workers’ organisation that can come to challenge the instruments of bourgeois democratic, that is, capitalist, rule. This method does not dispense with electoral work, but sees it as an important platform to mobilise support for this wider strategy.

In France, the LCR and, in particular, its leader Olivier Besancenot, is the force most associated with the workers’ and students’ radicalisation of the last decade; their electoral success and consequent breakthrough with the NPA is in large part owed to this. However, they have never won the leadership of the struggles themselves and, moreover, have not mobilised around the concrete slogans and demands that could challenge the existing reformist leaderships in the unions who have tended to be at the head of the major struggles. As a member of the League for the Fifth International in France put it following the defeats of the strike movement in 2007:

“What was very clearly lacking in the latest struggles was a political force giving a clear political lead to the masses in their mobilisations. The trade union bureaucrats were able to slow down the latest struggle, derail it and in the end sell it out, because there was no organised political force challenging their misleadership. Also to mount a strong resistance against Sarkozy means to unite all the sectors under attack in order to build a fighting solidarity (the youth, the sans papiers, workers in the public and private sector).”22

The transitional programme and method, both cornerstones of the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition from which the LCR have consciously distanced the NPA, will be the key to turning the new party into a political force that can play a revolutionary role in the French class struggle. Open criticism of the working classes’ leaders is, of course, important, but unless it is combined with the placing of what might at times be quite immediate demands on them, such criticisms will appear as unrelated to practical struggles and will lack an element of exposure of the reformist leaders. For example, during the CPE struggle, most radical forces, including the LCR, called for a general strike, but unless every effort is made to make this a demand on the union leaders, including taking a fight over the question into the unions, then it will appear as little more than a call for an uprising and put the trade union leaders under little pressure. The danger is that the new party will offer very enthusiastic support to the struggles developing against the crisis, but will not seek to lead them and instead adopt an excessive focus on elections. The NPA needs a perspective for strengthening working class organisation from below, fighting alongside reformist leaders in the unions where possible but against them where necessary, and mobilising transitional demands that challenge the capacity of capital to exploit and rule. In short, it needs to develop a programme for working class action against the economic crisis the final goal of which is the socialist revolution.

The question for the far left: the transitional method or centrism?
The experience of the NPA is unusual in that a far left grouping has, notwithstanding, our on-going criticisms, played a positive role in cohering a section of the working class around a new party and adopting a relatively principled position vis-à-vis the reformist parties. This has not been the case elsewhere in Europe. In Britain, for example, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) made staggering programmatic concessions when they formed the Respect party with former Labour Party MP George Galloway; dropping the goal of socialism, any explicit statement of working class politics, and even more immediate questions like abortion rights and secular education, in the hope they could win support for a left populist programme amongst influential Muslim community leaders. This meant that there were class contradictions built into the project from the outset that exploded with the split between the SWP and George Galloway in the fall of 2007. It led to a sharp and ultimately unsustainable contradiction between what the SWP would argue “as the SWP” in contrast to when they were representing the Respect party. There was little attempt to use the electoral platform to mobilise action amongst the class, to place demands on the union leaders or to achieve “organisation not just agitational” results in terms of strengthened working class organisation.23

Generally speaking, the far left in Europe rejects in practice the new workers’ party tactic as it was defined in its algebraic form by Trotsky insofar as they refuse, in a classically opportunistic fashion, to take the fight for a revolutionary action programme into the new party movements. This, in itself, reveals more than a mere tactical difference, of course, but exhibits fundamental errors over how revolutionaries fight for leadership in the working class, in particular, how we should use united front demands on working class leaders, act as strategists for the class in the immediate struggles, and use the transitional method to make real incursions on the economic and political power of capital. By not seeing the contemporary struggles of the working class as requiring such a revolutionary methodology, each of these centrist forces ultimately shares a conception of revolutionary change as a longer-term, objectively constituted, process that is not immediately connected with the programmatic arguments of revolutionaries today.

In a discussion with the LCR, leading SWP theorist, Alex Callinicos, summed up this methodology, which marks a quite open break with the transitional method. He writes:

“There is much to commend the LCR’s conception of the NPA. Not only are they correct in insisting on the difference between anti-(neo)liberalism and anti-capitalism, but it is also right not to make explicit commitment to the revolutionary Marxist tradition the basis of the new party. This is for long-term strategic reasons. The political experience of the 20th century shows very clearly that in the advanced capitalist countries it is impossible to build a mass revolutionary party without breaking the hold of social democracy over the organised working class.”24

For Callinicos, “breaking the hold of social democracy” requires the far left to establish new political forces that do not, in his words, “foreclose on the debate between reform and revolution” and are therefore “habitable to... refugees from social democracy”.25 Two things are striking in these comments. First is Callinicos’ insistence that the process of revolutionaries gaining influence amongst the working class is one that will take place over the longer term. In reality, it is unlikely that the dynamic of the class struggle will allow for a long preparatory period particularly as a sharp economic slump develops further. In France, for example, workers may successfully defeat the attacks of Sarkozy flowing from the crisis, strengthen their organisations from below and develop a more radical, revolutionary consciousness, or they may suffer sharp defeats that create a much less favourable environment for the NPA. Through the dialectic of the class struggle, reformist ideas can be broken down very quickly, but only if revolutionaries are willing to challenge them.

In any case, and secondly, sharp class struggles will require an intervention by the far left with a set of policies that, while including demands on the government for immediate measures in the workers’ interests, utilise transitional demands that challenge capital. In and of itself, the fight for reforms will not do this and furthermore risks a one sided focus on elections over the extra-parliamentary struggle. Alex Callinicos, however, envisages a situation where a fight for the Tobin Tax could lead to a direct confrontation with capital. He writes:

“On its own, the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions that is advocated by Die Linke and Attac is not an anti-capitalist measure. But it is perfectly possible to imagine how a real struggle for the Tobin Tax could develop into a confrontation with capital itself, and some of those who advocate it may well welcome such a prospect.”26

The Tobin Tax, the proposal for a 0.01 per cent tax on financial transactions to alleviate global poverty, is an unfortunate example even from Alex Callinicos’ point of view, as it is a particularly utopian reformist demand given there is no global state that could enforce such a taxation regime. This was true in the boom years and is doubly true now given the heightened competitive tensions between the world’s major economies over who will bear the costs of the global economic crisis. The fact that the proposal cannot act as an immediate demand on nation state governments in the way, for example, that the call for punitive taxation on the rich can, makes it quite difficult to imagine it leading to a conflict with capital as envisaged by Callinicos. More important, however, is that even when calls for reforms rally a mass, militant movement and even spiral into pre-revolutionary situations, the job of revolutionaries is still to raise transitional demands that develop the struggle further.

Nor do we need to consider hypothetical scenarios alone; if we look at the last few years in France, for example, we have seen outright pre-revolutionary situations, such as in the struggle against the CPE, in which the question of power has been posed, and other situations that have come close to this, as in the autumn 2007 movement against Sarkozy’s first anti-working class reforms. Each situation posed the need for militant methods of struggle, in particular the call for an indefinite strike, and fighting forms of organisation, developing the local co-ordination committees nationally to provide an alternative leadership to the union leaders and, finally, generalising the struggle by fighting for workers to bring forward their own demands and turning the mobilisations into a struggle for a workers’ government. In this way, by combining transitional and immediate demands and placing demands for action on the union leaders, revolutionaries can demonstrate that they are an alternative leadership to the union bureaucrats and the reformist parties. Even if we cannot turn this or that pre-revolutionary situation into a revolutionary one, we can educate a whole section of working class in the revolutionary programme that we will need to fight for in the next decisive struggle.

The historic global economic crisis, which had been developing since the downturn in the US economy began in 2007, reached new, quite staggering proportions in the autumn of 2008 when governments across the world found themselves having to step in to prevent the complete collapse of the global financial system. In mobilising an historic level of state intervention to save the system from itself, they shattered the core claim of neoliberal ideology that the market was a self-regulating and essentially rational mechanism whose efficiency was only undermined by politically motivated state interference. The drive of the state to encourage new rounds of investment activity by mobilising counter-cyclical fiscal measures such as state deficit spending, state backed credit facilities including “quantitative easing”, and anti-competitive protectionist measures for strategic manufacturing industries, has continued this theme further. Neoliberalism was always more of an ideology than a practical economic doctrine, there was no “retreat of the state” as such, only state policy favourable to private accumulation and increased exploitation but, insofar as it was a genuine doctrine for economic management, it is now all but finished.

Some activists in social democracy, the trade union leaders and social democracy’s left wing have identified this new reality as an historic opportunity to turn back the rightward drift of their parties and to develop a new Keynesian-based social reformism. They face the problem that class contradictions and class struggle globally are, of course, intensifying as a result of the crisis with capitalists demanding that workers pay for it. Just as the rise of neoliberalism can only be fully understood in the context of the unfolding contradictions of the capitalist economy and their impact on class relations, so we need to consider the possible political consequences of the crisis for social democracy not simply as a set of rational policy choices between competing doctrines but in terms of the intensification of the class pressures to which these parties will now be subject. Even where social democracy does not continue to pursue policies, such as privatisation, that we tend to associate with the neoliberal offensive, it faces nonetheless deeply antagonistic demands of workers and capital in the face of the crisis; with the latter pushing job losses, closures, demanding attacks on public sector spending, and anti-working class legislation to increase the level of exploitation. The degree and depth of the ‘bourgeoisification’ of European social democracy may mean it takes a path of further sharp attacks on working class social gains. In Britain, for example, the Labour government is pursuing privatisation of the postal service despite the Labour Party conference being against the policy and the government having also promised the unions it would be kept in public ownership.

Another response we have seen, which will be just as a dangerous an outcome for the working class, is the drive to economic nationalism. In Germany, the trade unions are strong supporters of a ‘European’ (read, German) response to the crisis in the car industry, that is, a set of protectionist measures that would centralise the industry under the hegemony of German capital and, they believe, protect German jobs. Similarly in Britain, social democratic union leaders have pushed a ‘British jobs, for British workers’ campaign in the construction industry, while a trade union slate will contest the European elections on a nationalist ‘No to the EU’ platform. For social democracy, such class collaboration is their bread and butter and it is no surprise that we are seeing a generalised tendency towards such ‘solutions’ in Europe. Indeed, given the depth of the crisis, it appears very likely that social democracy will try to unite itself around a ‘jobs for some’ not a ‘jobs for all’ banner.

It is the scale of the current crisis that makes it very improbable that a new left wing social reformism will develop inside the social democracy. The Keynesian measures now being pushed through may slow the development of the crisis but they cannot solve the problem of excess capital in the system relative to the available surplus value (profits). These measures can only prolong and further aggravate the problem in the longer term, while at the same time they will create an unsustainable fiscal position for many western states that must at some point result in public welfare cuts. The material basis for a new social reformism does not exist in the manner it did in the 1950s and 1960s.

The political fallout from this period of intensified class contradictions will be an outcome of struggle. Given the disillusionment built up with social democracy over many years, the weakness of the social democratic left, and the new bosses’ attacks ahead of us, it seems more likely that we will see another round of tension, crises and splits, rather than a tendency for a strengthened social democracy. Where there have been breaks and the formation of new parties, their growth will express the radicalisation of a significant section of the working class, their desire for anti-capitalist solutions and the polarisation between left and right underway in society at large. While the specific form will vary, a revolutionary united front policy, a transitional programme and the ceaseless raising of the ‘political question’ will be of decisive importance in the months and years ahead. The task we should set ourselves is to apply creatively the strategy, tactics and method developed in the classical Marxist tradition to the enormous challenges we face today.

1 Lenin drew extensively on the writings of Marx and Engels, who noted the emergence of an aristocracy of labour in England as the nation developed its dominance of the world market and increased its colonial possessions in the 19th century. Andy Yorke’s article on the struggle for independent working class political representation in the US contains a quite lengthy discussion on the relationship between the method of Marx and Engels and that adopted by Lenin and Trotsky on this question. See Yorke, A., ‘Why is there no socialism in the United States?’, pp. 115 – 154, Fifth International, vol. 3, no. 1, autumn 2008
2 For the classical account of Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy, imperialism and its consequences for the political organisation of the working class movement, see Lenin, V. I., ‘Imperialism and the Split in Socialism’, 1916, available on the Marxist Internet Archive,
3 Luxembourg, R., Reform or Revolution, chapter 8
4 Workers Power, ‘Political Parties and the Working Class’, Permanent Revolution, no. 1, 1983
5 Again, the classical statement of this is ‘Imperialism and the Split in Socialism’, there are also numerous references to it in the documents of the early Comintern. For example, see Trotsky, “The United Front”, 1922. This and documents which reiterate the point can be read in First Five Years of the Communist International, 1924
6 ‘Theses on Comintern Tactics’, Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 5th December 1922
7 Workers Power, ‘The strategy of reformist parties’, Permanent Revolution, no. 1, 1983
8 ibid
9 ibid
10 On the question of class independence and the labour party tactic in the United States see Yorke, A., op cit pp. 115 – 154, On Trotsky’s labour party tactic see Workers Power, “The Labour Party Tactic”, On the mistakes of the American communists in the 1920s, see Hardy, S., ‘James P Cannon and the fight for communism in the USA’, pp. 93 – 114, Fifth International, vol. 3, no. 1, autumn 2008
11 Workers Power, ‘Revolutionary tactics towards reformism’, Permanent Revolution, no. 1, 1983
12 See, chapter 3, The Death Agony of the Fourth International, 1983
13 Workers Power, ‘The Labour Party Tactic’ Permanent Revolution, no.1, 1983
14 ‘Theses on the United Front of Labor’, adopted by the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party of America, May 29, 1922
15 Cited in Harvey, D., p.13, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2005
16 ibid, p. 15
17 ibid
18 Trotsky, L., ‘How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S. March 21, 1938’
19 “Theses on Comintern Tactics”, Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 5th December 1922
20 ibid
21 Bensaïd, D., “A new debate is opening; the Return of Strategy”, International Viewpoint, No. 386, February 2007
22 Martin Suchanek, ‘The anticapitalist party project of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’, interview with Marc Lassalle and Inès Fertin,,
23 The SWP did push for a Respect initiative called “Fighting Unions” and this actually was part of the (class) conflict that developed in the coalition between themselves and George Galloway. However, owing to the SWP’s tailism towards the union leaders, they did not use the forum to develop the independent rank and file initiatives across the unions that could fight for action with the union leaders where possible and against them where necessary. For an example of the tailist policy adopted by the SWP in one of Britain’s most important industrial unions, the CWU, during their strike over pay, see Workers Power, ‘Postal strike: did the left provide a strategy to win?’, Workers Power, no. 321, winter 2007-08
24 Callinicos, A., ‘Where is the radical left going?’, International Socialism, no. 120, autumn 2008
25 ibid
26 ibid