I want to call your attention to an article that appeared in the Irish Left Review by Des Derwin, a long-time labor and left activist. Titled ULA! “No one would have believed….”, it takes a close and detailed look at a new electoral formation that has arisen in the wake of the devastating financial crisis. Derwin has apparently been following the debate about party-building methodologies internationally since he supplies a very informed appendix of links to various articles on the topic, including a couple that I have written.
It might be useful to summarize three approaches on the far left to building socialist or anti-capitalist parties:
1. “Old School” Marxism-Leninist: This is the type of party that considers itself to be based on Lenin’s Bolsheviks. It believes in “revolutionary continuity”, a kind of ideological bloodline that can be traced back to Karl Marx. It sees its duty as defending the revolutionary kernel of Marxism against petty-bourgeois germs in much the same manner that General Jack D. Ripper fought against the presence of fluoride in water supplies in Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove”. By waging an ideological war on behalf of a pure Marxist program and by participating in “united fronts” under their tight control, such groups have deep faith that they can lead proletarian revolutions.
2. Socialist Alliances: These formations have been tried exclusively in English-speaking countries over the past decade or so. They came into existence largely because groups in the first category found it useful to work within a broader framework that addressed the concerns of working people, thus facing the reality that the average left-minded citizen is not ready to accept the direct leadership of some group calling itself the Communist Workers Party that festoons its newspaper with hammer-and-sickles and lengthy articles about “the lessons of October”. Within the Socialist Alliances, they operate under their own discipline and no matter how persuasive the arguments of independent members of the alliance about one or another tactical question, the Leninists vote on the basis of what their own central committee considers correct. In some ways, the Leninist groups that operate in such electoral coalitions see unity as a temporary arrangement or even a maneuver in the classic United Front manner of the 1920s that was captured by the motto “March separately, strike together”. Unfortunately, this approach applied to party building does not foster a transparent and mutually respectful internal culture. Speaking of respectful, one might say that it led to the undoing of RESPECT, a socialist alliance led by George Galloway that came a cropper with the British SWP, one of the more intelligent groups operating in the first category that has never really come to terms with what Lenin was really about.
3. Broad left parties: Although these types of formations (NPA in France, Die Linke in Germany, etc.) appear brand new in a European context, this has been the modus operandi in much of Latin America for decades now. Whether in conditions of civil war (FSLN, FMLN) or in the new left electoral framework of Venezuela or Bolivia, Marxists have tended to supersede the sectarian small proprietor mentality of the self-styled Leninist left. Venezuela, in particular, has been most instructive. Marxists have always seen their formations as temporary, serving mainly as stepping-stones toward the larger goal of transforming society. You can find the history of this process in Richard Gott’s book on Hugo Chavez that I wrote about in 2007. Here’s a relevant excerpt from my article:
After an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992, Chavez was sent to Yare Prison. Just like Fidel Castro’s imprisonment after the unsuccessful raid on Moncada, Chavez began making new plans for the seizure of power from behind bars. For the next two years, the political mood began to change radically in Venezuela. The ruling party began to fall apart at the seams, while leftist coalitions like Convergencia (which included Movimiento al Socialismo) and parties like Causa R began to grow rapidly. From within his prison cell, Chavez began to reach out to them. He did draw the line, however, when it came to ultraleftists like Bandera Roja that claimed to be the inheritor of the mantle of the guerrillas of the earlier period. Chavez never had much time for such ultraleftists:
Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries. I have never talked for more than five minutes with a single leader of Bandera Roja.
So, to make myself crystal clear, I advocate that the left in the developed countries adopt a mindset much closer to Convergencia or Causa R. Rather than trying to build parties that are the kernel of modern era Bolsheviks, it should think much more in transitional terms. Even though he was a paradigm of category one, James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, had it right when he said, “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”
Although I am not at all familiar with Des Derwin, I have great confidence that he understands all this, even though he is much more tactful than me. Frankly, everybody is.
Derwin refers his readers to an announcement of the United Left Alliance that appeared on the People Before Profits website:
At a meeting held in Dublin last Sunday, 24th October, involving the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group, and Cllr Declan Bree and his local group in Sligo, a historic decision was taken to establish a left alliance to contest the next general election and to take the first steps towards a new, left, anti capitalist formation to represent working people.
It is to be called the United Left Alliance. A strong, left wing, anti capitalist and anti coalition with right wing parties, programme has been agreed. This will be circulated as soon as a few small agreed amendments are made. The alliance will be open to anyone who accepts its basic programme and aims, but the aim is to attract as many workers and young people as possible.
We learn from Derwin that the Irish section of the international movement founded by Tony Cliff is behind People Before Profits:
Since the turn of the millennium some of the world wave of left liaison has lapped these shores. There have been several political alliances of varying life spans: The Socialist Alliance briefly brought together the SWP [the Socialist Workers Party, the Cliffite group named after its mother ship in England], Socialist Democracy and independents. Some of these independents (recently described on the blogosphere as “the usual left unity suspects”) are a common denominator along this many-leagued road of leagues. The Socialist Environmental Alliance comprised the SWP, environmentalists and some others in Derry. The People Before Profit Alliance consists of the SWP plus various and varying activists, groupings and independents. The Campaign for an Independent Left enfolded at one time the Dublin South Central based Community and Workers Action Group, now in the PBPA, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the Irish Socialist Network, and some independents. The rump of CIL [Campaign for an Independent Left] is now in the PBPA and still meets occasionally. Last year the SEA [Socialist Environmental Alliance] in Derry joined the PBPA.
In addition to the SWP, the Socialist Party of Ireland is playing a major role, which was reflected in an article that appeared on its website:
The newly established United Left Alliance, which will be publicly launched at a rally in the Ashling Hotel , Dublin on Friday 26 November, involves the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group and the Independent Socialist group of Declan Bree in Sligo.
The ULA is a joint slate or alliance of candidates that will put forward a real left alternative in the general election and challenge the austerity and capitalist consensus amongst all the parties in the Dail, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Greens but also clearly including Labour and Sinn Fein.
The ULA flows from a process of discussions initiated some time ago by the Socialist Party. It is a necessary and principled attempt at serious co-operation between left groups and while we will have to see how it goes over the next months, the Socialist Party hopes that the ULA will be an important first step in the formation of a new mass party for working class people, based on socialist policies.
The Socialist Party is the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers International led by Peter Taaffe. This is the Trotskyist group that is best known for its deep entryist tactic in the Labour Party. Formed by Ted Grant shortly after the death of Leon Trotsky, it came on the scene just around the time that Tony Cliff became convinced of the theory of state capitalism and decided to launch his own international movement. With figures like Grant and Cliff, as close to Trotsky as the apostles were to Jesus, it is not surprising that Trotskyist concepts of party-building pervade their respective movements.
It should be mentioned that Grant and Alan Woods broke with Taaffe in the early 1990s and started their own international movement. I would be hard pressed to distinguish the two formations politically, except for Woods’s well-known affinity for Hugo Chavez’s movement, despite his failure to grasp its non-sectarian essence. By the same token, the British SWP has endured the same kind of splintering. Around the same time that Grant and Woods got the heave-ho, the American Cliffites—the ISO—were expelled from their world movement. More recently, the British SWP split over issues raised by the RESPECT fiasco, with John Rees and Lindsey German starting their own new group. As was the case with the Taaffe-Woods split, I would be hard pressed to find any major theoretical differences between Rees/German and Alex Callinicos, the chief of the SWP. Needless to say, all this does not bode well for any electoral formation they get involved with.
Derwin has a good grasp of the need for something like the ULA and the possible pitfalls given the history of the prime players:
It is by no means just in the electoral field that cooperation must replace competition on the left. In the trade unions the scattered forces of the left – as well of course as the general weakness of organised labour – have allowed a pathetic and pampered peerage to prostrate the unions and propose in perpetuity, as the only ‘alternative’ they perceive, a depreciated partnership that has been passed over by patrons and politicians. In the face of impending catastrophe – not my words – the trade union leadership, or sections of it, has begun to stir into life. It could be only another false beginning like February, March, November and December 2009. Yet the preparatory machine, authoritative call and turn out for Saturday 27th November contrasted clearly with the meagre mobilisations wrought by the left throughout the year. So clearly that we surely must be open to some lessons in intra-left pooling and modesty and extra-left orientation to union and community structures however professionalised they are at present.
And during the very birth of a new alliance the same old crap repeats itself even among the allies, reminding us how far we have yet to travel. One organisation, a ULA participant, through a closely associated campaign, organises a march for Budget Day. Another organisation in the ULA, along with almost all the rest of the radical left, wishes to organise a joint left march for the same time. This might have been sorted out in the spirit of the new departure. But after some diplomatic efforts the original organisers refused to convert the march to a joint one and ‘the rest of the left’, in those circumstances, declined to row in behind the original march. The march therefore proceeded with the weight of just one section of the left, while the ‘rest of the left’, rather than gritting their teeth, raising their eyes to heaven and joining the march anyway, held a separate rally at the Dáil before the march arrived there. ULA? Ooh alors! The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.
Despite my skepticism about the long-term prospects for the ULA, I think it is a good thing that socialists are getting together to fight against the disastrous cuts being forced on Irish working people. Perhaps in the crucible of struggle people will begin to figure out that it is high time to dump the “Russian questions” as a litmus test and begin to make the Irish question for the people of Ireland paramount just as it is necessary to make American questions primary for my own countrymen.
As Des Derwin said most eloquently, “The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.” This is the question facing the revolutionary left in one form or another everywhere in the world today. Let’s fight against derailment, comrades.