Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Marching separately

(October 2005)

From Socialist Review, No.300, October 2005.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The rise of the new left in Europe opens up new opportunities for revolutionaries

Is a new mass left emerging across Europe? This seems a very real possibility after a summer which has seen the emergence of the Left Party in Germany, the central role played by the LCR and the Communist Party in the victory for the ‘No’ vote in the French referendum, and the electoral breakthrough for Respect in England.

The new developments are of enormous importance. The extraparliamentary left which existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s suffered grievously from the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1980s. It was forced into a political ghetto despite its high profile in certain struggles (for instance the miners’ strike and the poll tax revolt in Britain). Things began to change from the late 1990s onwards.

But the left organisations remained too small to provide a focus for political continuity to more than a small proportion of the new activists. They involved at best dozens of people in each locality, compared with the hundreds or thousands involved in the struggles. And attempts to provide some continuity through local social forums, especially in Italy, backfired as they turned into talking shops and activists dropped away. Now there are possibilities of breaking out of the impasse.

The new formations are not going to be 100 percent revolutionary. A key role is played in all of them by people who still believe in the possibilities of reforming capitalism. This is certainly true of the nationally known leaders of the German Left Party, Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, and of the Communist Party in France. It is true of the leadership of Rifondazione in Italy, whose perspective is to join the government led by the former head of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. It is also true of many from Old Labour, Islamic or peace backgrounds in Respect in England – they are clear in their opposition to imperialism, Islamophobia and neo-liberalism, but far from convinced by the revolutionary arguments.

Faced with this, two temptations are open to the revolutionary left. The first is to ignore the new possibilities. Participating in new formations alongside leading figures who still have reformist ideas, it is claimed, will spread illusions in people with damaging politics. Such is the response of some of the far left in Germany to the new party, of sections of the LCR in France to any proposal for a united political front involving the Communist Party, and of some small left groups in Britain to Respect.

But abstention from the new formations is not going to stop left variants of reformism influencing large numbers of people. As I have argued many times before in this column, reformism is not something imposed from the outside on workers by treacherous leaders, but the political expression of the contradictory ideas of people who, even while beginning to challenge the existing system, take for granted many of the ideas it has inculcated into them.

For the revolutionary left to stand apart from the new left formations would be to leave the influence of left reformism within them unchallenged. It is to dress up in revolutionary colours a conservative stance which runs away from the need to challenge the influence of reformism.

But there is also a second temptation. That is to drop arguments for revolutionary socialism and the long term perspective of building overtly revolutionary organisation. That is to forget that the central features of reformist thought – the idea that social change can come from above rather than below – will at some point translate itself into trying to direct the movement in a disastrous direction. At such a point some with reformist ideas may change their ideas – but most of the leaders will opt for the road to disaster and try to pull others after them.

So people like Lafontaine, Gysi and leading figures in the French CP are likely at some point to use any electoral success to follow the example of Rifondazione and try to patch up a deal with the Third Way parties. The point of enthusiastic participation in the new formations should be not only to win partial demands, however important some of these may be (for instance, forcing Blair to withdraw from Iraq), but also to win other activists to the revolutionary ideas that alone can prevent such backsliding.

To recognise this should not mean seizing every opportunity to disagree with other people. That is the way to alienate those who want to struggle but who hold ideas you disagree with. But it does mean taking up such disagreements in a clear but fraternal manner when they have implications for the immediate activity (for instance when those influenced by reformism say protection against terrorist attacks necessitates more police or that the answer to unemployment lies in bigger subsidies for private industry). It also means continuing to try to win individuals to the building of a revolutionary organisation.

There is an old formula derived from the veteran Russian Marxist Plekhanov for the joint action between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries – march together but strike separately. But it can be misapplied if interpreted literally, giving the impression that revolutionaries have to form hermetically sealed columns, going alongside other hermetically concealed columns of non-revolutionaries. So using this formula, one member of the LCR, Gilbert Achcar, has criticised the role played by the SWP on anti-war demonstrations and in Respect, for among other things, ‘mixing banners and placards’ with the Muslim Association of Britain (see his article, Marxists and Religion, on Znet, 21 March). But it is precisely when revolutionaries mix their ‘banners and placards’ in this way in struggles that there is the possibility of political dialogue with non-revolutionaries (whether they come from Muslim or non-Muslim organisations).

In Germany revolutionaries do need to be mixing with supporters of Lafontaine; in France with militants still attached to the Communist Party; in Italy with those in the mainstream of Rifondazione; in Britain with activists from all sorts of backgrounds, whether Old Labour, Muslim or simply anti-war. That is the precondition for putting our distinct arguments across and preventing the movement being led in the wrong direction at vital moments.

Last updated on 27 December 2009