Volume 38, Number 3: May/June 2004

Old endings, new beginnings: Realignment on the socialist left

The socialist Left in various sites around the globe, and with varying results, is moving through a process of realignment. Underlying this development is the belief that the old Communist and social-democratic projects have run their course. Obviously the shell of social democracy carries on, but no one would argue that it represents an alternative to neoliberalism. The consequence for socialists is a certain opening to structural and ideological creativity emerging in the space vacated by the traditional Left.

The Scottish Socialist Party

Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, back in 1989, set the Scottish working class in motion in a campaign of direct action that eventually (in 1998) led a diverse group of trade unionists, Trotskyists, nationalists, social democrats and Communists to form the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP currently has six members in the Scottish Parliament and, in the city of Glasgow, the party won nearly 16 per cent of the vote.

The SSP can be characterized as a party committed to socialism and Scottish independence. Internal debate and difference is encouraged, but within the framework of these larger political objectives. Toronto activist Jessie MacKenzie, who has followed the evolution of the SSP, told a recent public forum sponsored by the newly formed Socialist Project that the SSP “is a party of both revolutionary and non-revolutionary socialists who work together to challenge the hegemony of New Labour in the working class.”

There is a working assumption in the SSP’s practice that reformism, as embodied by the Labour party, is dead. The problem with this assumption is that, while reformism as a politics of significant social change clearly has no future, the strategy of incremental change is still very much alive in the political practice of large parts of the organized working class. Reformism offers no real alternative, yet the tradition and hope of what it was historically is a tenacious tenant in working-class politics.

Still, the 70,000-strong Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union, the first union to affiliate to the Labour party in 1899, divorced New Labour and became the first union to affiliate with the Scottish Socialist Party. In England, the same union threw its weight behind the newly formed RESPECT (Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, Trade Unionism). No one can deny the symbolic power of this development.

Founded by George Galloway, MP recently expelled by New Labour, RESPECT emerged out of the anti-war struggles in Britain. This broad coalition includes the revolutionary Left, but also goes well beyond this core to encompass a significant following in Britain’s Muslim community. RESPECT recently decided to field candidates in elections for the European Parliament.

The Case of France

On the European continent, in the aftermath of September 11, the anti-globalization and anti-capitalist struggles in France deepened and were further catalyzed by the shocking second-place finish of National Front candidate Jean-Marie LePen in the 2002 presidential election. Millions demonstrated against neo-fascism. Soon after consolidating power, the new conservative government implemented draconian educational and labour-law changes, seeking to roll back the gains of past working-class struggles. Not inclined to sit idly by, French students and trade unions met these policies with resistance in the streets.

Raghu Krishnan, who was living in Paris as these events unfolded, told the SP forum that the utter disdain for the neoliberal practice of the “plural-left” government of Lionel Jospin informed the political merger of the Revolutionary Communist League and Workers’ Struggle. This has significant implications for the political landscape of France when you consider these parties polled three million votes in the 2002 presidential elections. Part of the French working class is seeking an alternative expression to both the neoliberal right and the neoliberal left. The problem in France, as in other countries like Italy, is that the socialist Left finds itself caught between the need to defeat the fascist and conservative forces and its insufficient strength to pull it off alone, at least not yet.

Australia: A Socialist Alliance

Australia’s Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), established in 1991, has its roots in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Consequently, an internationalist orientation has shaped its practice and has made reaching out to other progressive political forces a central part of its strategy. The national secretary of the DSP, John Percy, noted this orientation lives on in the DSP’s efforts to bring together various political forces, including the Communist party of South Africa, the Indonesian People’s Democratic Party, the Pakistan Labour Party and the Malaysian Socialist Party, to name only some, in regular forums held in Australia.

In 2001, the DSP called for a regroupment of all Australian socialist organizations. The outcome of this initiative was the formation of the Socialist Alliance, which brought together nine groups with a membership of two thousand. This effort has inspired militant trade unionists, most notably the dock workers, to become involved. Again, much of this mobilization occurred with war looming and 1.2 million Australians taking their opposition to the streets. In 2003 the Socialist Alliance agreed to constitute itself as a multi-tendency party.

Reformist Reforms vs. Reforms that Challenge Capitalism

Greg Albo, a founder of the Socialist Project here in Canada, noted that “we are on the cusp of another moment of creativity in socialist organization. This is partly out of necessity, out of what has ended, but also because the need is so great to combat neoliberalism in all its forms.” And this includes reformism.

All of the examples of realignment share a common dream of creating an alternative to neoliberalism. Yet, the spectre of reformism plays some role in each case. In Britain, RESPECT is not an overtly revolutionary socialist party. Its origins are in the anti-war movement and its linkages to the working class tangential and conjunctural. In Australia, the Socialist Alliance has encountered some tensions with the International Socialist Organization on the question of organizational strategy. The ISO favours a popular-front approach, rather than a more integrated and structured form. Closer to home, it should not go without noting that Québec’s Union des forces progressistes (UFP) is close, in structural respects, to this non-sectarian model in bringing three Leftist parties together within one shell. However, it cannot be compared to the Socialist Alliance or the SSP, which are decidedly socialist organizations. It might be better characterized as a popular front of anti-neoliberal progressives that includes socialists.

Albo noted that “The Left formations of the twentieth century, whether Communist, Trotskyist, or social-democratic, are finished in the sense of making any advance towards socialist transformation. Our task is to develop new organizational forms which are profoundly different from these early structures and practices.” Albo broadly characterized the necessary new model as a “multi-tendency-pluralist-socialist party that allows and is comfortable with a range of orientations and caucuses.” The question is not reform or revolution, but putting in place a politics of reform within a socialist context, promoting reforms that challenge capitalism.

The Socialist Project

As for its relationship to social democracy, Albo said of the Socialist Project, “this has to be a socialist organization pressuring social democracy from the Left as it bleeds to the Right. Circumstances have to be built, and it is the job of socialists to build these, where a significant left formation can emerge in Canada.”

Sam Gindin added that “this forum was another step, like the founding of the Socialist Project itself, in beginning to reassemble the pieces left over from the October, 2000 Rebuilding the Left meeting in Toronto.” Despite the large numbers, the excitement and enthusiasm, nothing of lasting significance came of that effort. Gindin noted that “at that time we wanted a structured Left, but came up against a politics that resisted structure. This failure to insist on structure goes a long way to explaining why that first effort at rebuilding the Left did not progress.”

Elaborating on the theme of creating a space and a different kind of politics, Gindin noted that “We are at the beginning of building a new collective culture and capacity to discuss. Given what we are up against, there is urgency to this. But this will go nowhere if it is not based on tremendous mutual respect of all involved in the process.”

Perhaps, having learned from our own experiences, and from that of others around the globe, we are witnessing a new beginning.

Bryan Evans is a member of the Toronto Socialist Project and teaches politics at Ryerson University.

New European Party of the Left Founded

Eleven leftist and Communist parties, meeting in Berlin on January 11, finally agreed after ten years of discussion and debate to found a party called the European Left. Eight other parties that also attended the meeting did not join, but remained as observers, waiting for confirmation from their home countries or considering the founding premature. The eleven that did join decided the step was necessary in preparation for the June elections to the European Parliament, which already has a left-wing caucus that the groups hope to enlarge substantially, especially with the help of leftist parties in the ten new countries joining the European Union. The eleven founding parties have a membership of about a half-million members.

According to Lothar Bisky, chair of the host party, Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism: “The time is ripe for a party of European leftists. A Europe of peace, of justice, of openness and democracy is impossible without a strong, visible and self-assured Left. The answer as to what kind of Europe the Left wants will be more convincing if we ourselves demonstrate the answer: democracy, equality, transparency and tolerance are consensus and prerequisite for our alternatives.” Not party bureaucracy and diplomacy, but active engagement in politics, with changes in the everyday life of the people as our goals.

Besides the German PDS, the most active initiators of the new party were Italy’s Party of the Communist Refoundation and Greece’s Coalition of the Left of Political Movements and Ecology (SYNASPISMOS).

In the new program, the eleven founding members stressed eight main demands:

  • No weapons of mass destruction from the Atlantic to the Urals, but rather a Europe of collective security without NATO or any military alliance of the European Union.
  • A redistribution from rich to poor, solidarity and social policies aimed at full employment and job training, investment in ecology, taxation of capital speculation. People not profits must become central.
  • No attacks on human rights in the name of fighting terrorism, but an open Europe with human rights and asylum for refugees.
  • No trade war at the expense of the less developed countries, but courageous initiatives for just economic and political partnership.
  • Opposition to the concentration of the media in fewer and fewer hands .
  • Ecological goals against carbon dioxide emissions, export of garbage and the exploitation of energy resources and forests.
  • A rollback of growing sexist discrimination caused by globalization, for equal rights for men and women.
  • A fight against the domination by capital and the rule of capitalism. We want a different culture of life, work, production and distribution.

Some observers found it symbolic that the meeting was held in the same auditorium where the German Communist Party was founded 84 years ago by leaders like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, whose memory was marked the same day by the traditional annual march of tens of thousands of leftists from Berlin and many other German and foreign places. The European delegates took part in the opening ceremonies, placing red carnations near the big stone epitaph to the two murdered leaders.

Victor Grossman, Berlin

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