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In this article, which will appear in Spanish in the Chilean journal Revista Materialismo Histórico, John Rees looks at the prospects for the left

Marx

The recession should be over by now. That’s what the politicians predicted when it began in 2008. But it’s not. It’s turned into the deepest and longest recession for at least 100 years. Six years after the global collapse began Britain stands on the brink of a triple dip recession. In Greece the recession is so deep that social collapse and political disintegration have set in. Spain and Italy are not far behind. Indeed the entire Eurozone seems mired in a crisis without end. America has not been able to provide an engine for international recovery. Even China’s spectacular industrial revolution has been slowed.

At the heart of this recession is debt. After years of piling up debt the trigger was bank loans to ‘sub-prime’ poor householders in the US who could not repay what they borrowed. When they defaulted on their loans it turned out that the banks themselves were borrowing money from other banks. So they defaulted on their debts causing a crash in the financial system. Then the governments bailed out the banks. Now the governments are trying to get the money out of their ordinary citizens because bailing out the banks has made whole countries debt-ridden.

The US crash will be forever linked with the name of the fourth largest investment bank in the US: Lehman Brothers. Lehmans grew from a cattle and cotton trading business established by Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman in the 1850s in Alabama. When cotton trading was disrupted by the American Civil War in the 1860s the firm’s operations began to focus more on financial trading in New York. Lehmans were big sub-prime mortgage lenders. But by August 2007 it had already been forced to close its subsidiary sub-prime lender BNC Mortgage, eliminating 1,200 employees in 23 locations. Lehman’s took an after-tax charge of $25 million and a $27 million reduction in goodwill.

But this was only the beginning. Lehmans were hit by huge losses on their extensive sub-prime loans. Lehman's loss was a result of having held on to large positions in subprime and other lower-rated mortgage holdings. On September 15th Lehman Brothers Holdings announced it would file for bankruptcy citing bank debt of $613 billion and $155 billion in bond debt. A group of Wall Street firms agreed to provide capital, the Federal Reserve, the US central bank, agreed to a swap of lower-quality assets in exchange for loans and other assistance from the government. The morning witnessed scenes of Lehman employees removing files, items with the company logo, and other belongings from the world headquarters at 745 Seventh Avenue. These scenes continued throughout the day and into the following day.

The collapse of Lehman brothers was a signal of how deep the recession was about to become. What follows is not a comprehensive account of the European crisis but rather a snapshot of some of its significant aspects and an outline of the working class response.

Britain’s long recession

Britain is not the worst hit European economy. Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland are worse effected. But the British economy is in a bad way, facing a recession longer and deeper than anything before.

Graph 1: British recessions compared

Source: NIESR

Graph 1 shows the state of the economy, measured by distance from its earlier peak output, in the months after four major recessions. The recession of the 1930s was deeper in other parts of the world but in Britain, although it was serious, recovery was under way after 3 years. The recession of the early 1970s was more erratic but recovery was again underway in three years. The collapse in the early 1980s was deeper but lasted no longer than the previous two recessions. The slump of the 1990s was comparatively shallow. But the current recession is the longest of them all, on the way down it was the steepest decline, and it has continued long after the last recession began its recovery phase.

And the really bad news is that, 5 years after the recession began, debt is worse than ever. Household debt, by 2008, had reached 100 percent of GDP, making British households the most heavily indebted of any large economy. Since the crash, households have attempted to repay that debt by cutting their spending – which in turn has helped worsen the recession. But even with bank write-offs, household debt now stands at 99 percent of GDP. It has barely moved from its exceptional levels at the height of the boom.

Worse, that debt may be now held in more expensive forms as some households, cut off from bank loans, are still forced to borrow. Credit card debt has risen from £53 billion to £56 billion over the same period of time even though an 'extraordinary' £13 billion has been written off. Total credit card debt when write-offs have been stripped out has exploded by £16 billion. So household debts are not only still rising but financial companies are being forced to write off debt. And those liabilities, if recent history is anything to go by, could one day become state debt. Britain’s state debt is not especially serious, compared to other developed countries, as these figures for the G7 major economies show:

Gross public debt as a percentage of GDP
(the total amount of new wealth the economy produces in a year)

Japan

226

Italy

111

France

90

Germany

83

UK

81

United States

80

Canada

69

The UK’s public debt is high neither by international, nor historical standards. At the end of the Second World War, for example, it was nearly 200% of GDP. Coalition government rhetoric about the “cupboard being bare” does not stand up – at least for government borrowing. The major danger to British capitalism, however, is in the immense pile of private borrowing it must now support. Alongside the highest levels of household debt in the developed world, the UK maintains an exceptionally indebted financial system. Banks and other large financial institutions here owe (on a conservative estimate) 219% of GDP. Along with household and firms’ debt, this makes the UK the most heavily-indebted economy in the world. The danger, when debts get large, is that the financial systems supporting it are more likely to crash – just as they did in 2008. That implies further bailouts and government support. So austerity is imposed now not to pay for the last crash, but clear the decks in case of the next.

The crisis is having its worst impact across southern Europe, where failed banking systems are entangled with rapidly rising public debt. This, in turn, has repeatedly panicked the financial markets that make the loans into increasing the rate of interest they charge crisis-stricken governments. Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, the economies known as from their initials as the PIIGS have been the worst hit. In February 2011 the European Union created a permanent bailout fund to try and prevent the recession causing a complete economic implosion in some European economies. Greece has been the country worst affected. And a full scale social crisis has engulfed the country.

Greek meltdown

The depth of social collapse in Greece is unprecedented in post-war Europe. Last year, the Greek prime minister warned Europe that his country was on the edge of a Weimar Germany-style social collapse. The economic collapse is certainly on the scale of Germany in the 1920s. The Greek statistics agency EL.STAT says that the 2011 deficit stood at 9.4 percent of GDP and the public debt at 170.6 percent. Greece is begging the EU and IMF to release the latest tranche of aid — a staggering 31.2 billion euros ($39.7 billion).

The neo-fascist party Golden Dawn won seats in Parliament and recently mobislised 30,000 on the streets. They regularly attack immigrants and the left, even on national TV where one of their members attacked a representative of the Greek Communist Party. On the left a new coalition of the left, Syriza, almost won the election as the Greek Labour Party equivalent, PASOK, collapsed in the polls. Now anger is rising against the economic austerity measures of the coalition government of Conservatives, Socialists and the Democratic Left.

Greek society stands at the edge of an abyss. It is the only European society since the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to face a disintegration of its social fabric and its political system. The cuts are ripping welfare provision, jobs and wages to bits. The main parties of the centre are collapsing and new forces~Syriza on the left, Golden Dawn on the right~are challenging for power. And although the European crisis is deepest in Greece it is not the only country where economic crisis is creating political turmoil.

Spain follows Greece

The Spanish crisis is only a step behind that in Greece. Total unemployment is now over a quarter of the entire workforce. But the figure for unemployed young people is over 55 percent. Corporate bankruptcies have never been so high and the economy is tanking. But the owners of stocks and bonds are doing fine…their values are rising in the midst of the misery around them (Graph 2).

Graph 2: Spanish economic performance

Spanish economic performance figures

Source: Thompson Reuters Datastream

As a result Spain has been rocked by civil unrest. Striking miners from the Asturias region have fired rockets in pitched battles with police. Then they marched on Madrid. Town and city squares have been occupied by young protestors. As in Greece, the unions have repeatedly called one day general strikes. And behind Spain stand Italy, Portugal and Ireland in the pecking order of worst hit states.

In spring 2013 they were joined by the tiny economy of Cyprus. The exact nature of the crisis could not have been more clearly demonstrated than it was in the initial response of the European elites. Their proposal was to simply seize money from the accounts of the islanders, including the poorest, to pay for the ineptitude of Cypriot bankers. This had to be abandoned in the wake of a huge revolt by Cypriots. Banks were closed and Cyprus has essentially suspended its membership of the Euro, imposing draconian restrictions on the use of the currency. The crisis remains unresolved.

The European Union is trying to force through austerity measures across the continent. Austerity measures are being enforced by multinational institutions across the whole continent. But resistance is also becoming internationalised. Late last year a remarkable thing happened across the European continent.

November 14th 2012: a European general strike

ETUC map of N14 actionsThere have been co-ordinated international protests in the past. Famously, in response to the threat of war in Iraq, the largest global day of political protest took place on February 15th 2003. But there have never been co-ordinated general strikes across different countries. Yet that is what happened on November 14th 2012.

In Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece the unionized workforce struck and demonstrated. Many un-unionized workers joined in. The protest demonstrations were huge. In France and Belgium there were solidarity actions. In many other countries there were meetings in solidarity with the strikers. The European Trade Union Congress map of the continent showed how widespread the action was: From Finland in the north to Cyprus in the Mediterranean; from Dublin in the west to Ankara in the east protest exploded.

This is a European crisis and a global crisis. The institutions that caused the crisis, the banks and the corporations, are multi-national. The institutions of government that enforce austerity on unwilling populations, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, are multinational as well. Much of the response from ordinary people trying to hold on to their jobs, defend their welfare provision and living standards has necessarily been national in character. But November 14th general strikes in Europe confronted the governments of the continent with a co-ordinated response for the first time. The scene is set for further struggles over who will pay the bill for the greatest economic crash in 100 years. A crucial element in that response will be what the left decides to do.

The response of the left

Let’s start by looking at the traditional labour and social democratic parties of Europe. The story here is remarkably simple, at least as far as the leaderships are concerned. They have, without notable exception, embraced neoliberal economics. In so far as they are different in policy terms from Europe’s conservative and Christian Democratic parties these differences are of a few degrees. This is true of New Labour in Britain, the SPD in Germany, the Socialist Parties of France and Spain, and PASOK in Greece, to name only some of the most important cases. They remain, however, different in social composition, rooted in and linked to workers and their organizations even if less securely than in the past.

This neoliberal move by social democracy has produced some profound results. There is widespread disillusion with the political system. ‘They are all the same’ is a cry found from one end of Europe to the other. In some cases, Greece and Italy for instance, the logic of this mainstream political consensus is that unelected ‘technocratic’ governments have taken over from elected politicians at particular moments of crisis. After all, if all the politicians are in favour of neoliberalism, why bother with elections? The ‘democratic deficit’ which first became pronounced in some states at the time of the Iraq war has been widened by the governing classes’ response to the recession.

Graph 3: British politics converges: 1945-2005: Left-Right movements by parties

1945-2005: Left-Right movements by parties

Source: Hans-Dieter Klingemann, Mapping policy preferences II: estimates for parties, electors, and governments in Eastern Europe, European Union, and OECD 1990-2003, Volume 2, p. 26
Note: This graph from the Comparative Manifesto Project plots the ideological position of political parties over time on the basis of the content of their election manifestos. It shows the trajectory of the main parties in Britain in the post-war period on a single left-right dimension, where positive numbers represent the shift to the right.

The predominant reaction to the recession and to the institutional deafness of the ruling class has been, as we have seen, a widespread level of protest across the continent. But what are the general contours of this resistance? In almost every country, from those where resistance has been high to those where it has been much lower, there has been a similar pattern. Resistance has combined two main elements. One has been street demonstrations. Sometimes these have been of hundreds of thousands, sometimes they have been smaller ‘stunts’ and propaganda actions. The Occupy movement produced a highly visible alternative model for a few months.

The second element has been the response of the trade unions. This has almost always been through one day national strikes, 20 in Greece alone since 2009. Relatively little has been sustained industrial action on the model of the 1970s, and certainly not on a significant scale. These strikes and the protests that accompany them are best seen as political strikes. That is, they are not primarily intended to use industrial muscle to change government policy but instead are an extension of the street demonstrations into the core of the working class by the use of trade union mobilizing capacity.

In some cases this relationship has been mutually re-enforcing. In Britain the first mass street demonstrations by the student movement of 2010 ignited trade union led demonstrations and strikes over pensions the following year. In other cases the relationship has been damagingly hostile. In Spain the occupations of the squares turned its back on trade union involvement and justified this with autonomist arguments.

This contrast brings us to a deeper issue: the relationship between the advanced sections of the movement and the mass of workers. I do not speak of the small revolutionary groups here, of which more later, but of the many tens of thousands of militants and activists who have been involved in this process but who have not yet found a way to connect with the very broadest sections of the working class whom it is necessary to mobilize if austerity is to be defeated. The Occupy movement, the student movement, anti-cuts campaigners and so on form, in the most general sense, a vanguard. They are many thousands strong. But they need to mobilize millions to win. Greece shows that where this does not happen, even with a very high level of struggle and an effective left of centre party like Syriza, the right can still find a way to fight for political hegemony. Even in Egypt in a revolution the millions involved in the ‘Republic of Tahrir’ found that the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime could still appeal to millions of Egyptians beyond their ranks in an attempt to isolate the revolutionary vanguard.

So, internationally, the question of the hour is how can the militant sections of the class unite and formulate an appeal to millions more workers that can successfully isolate our rulers and their lower class and middle class supporters?

Occupy London at St Paul's

For some the answer lies in the so called horizontal movements. These movements have been dynamic and have served to dramatize the level of antipathy to the system as a whole. Some involve mass participation, like the early European Social Forums or Occupy Wall Street. But others, like Occupy in London, though effective in creating a wide audience and sympathy for anti-capitalist arguments, actually involved some thousands of activists but not more. Their effective political life is sometimes short. This is not to decry this form of protest as some on the left have done. Any socialist organization that does not welcome and participate in such actions is turning its back on one very vital form of modern radicalism. But these movements have not resolved the question of how the militant minority relates to and wins arguments with a wider section of the working class. Indeed they sometimes unhelpfully counterpose the virtues of the active minority to the ‘sheeple’ that are caught in the throes of consumerism.

Activists in the new movements also tend to underestimate the durability of traditional labour movement organizations. Unions may have suffered a sustained period of setbacks now lasting decades. But they remain by a considerable distance the central organizations to which working people look for defence. They are by far the largest voluntary organizations in the country and they have mobilized many hundreds of the thousands more than any other organizations, with the exception of the anti-war movement.

This also leads to an underestimation of the united front as a key mechanism by which unity is attained in the working class movement. If the unions are all conservative, if the social democrats are no different to Tories, then why bother with them? Why not just attempt forms of direct action with a minority of activists in a bid to topple or defeat the system by direct assault? A moment’s thought shows that this is not only a disastrously elitist attitude to the majority of working people but also a quick way to isolate and demoralize the activist minority. Plus, it won’t work. If capitalism could be defeated by the actions of a determined minority we would surely already be living under socialism.

The relevance of the united front

A smarter strategy is required which does not try to wish away the real structures and allegiances which actually existing workers retain. This is why in building a united front it is necessary to construct it not just ‘from below’ but also ‘from above’, that is in negotiation with the existing leaders of unions and the representatives of social democratic parties, in so far as this is possible. As long as workers have faith in their existing leaders it is necessary to reach agreement with those leaders or it will not be possible to mobilize in unity with these workers. This was the point that Trotsky and others in the Third International made in response to the strategy of some ultra left German Communists in the 1920s who imagined that a ‘united front from below’ could be constructed behind the back of the existing reformist leaders.

This debate is now presented with great clarity by John Riddell in his introduction to his new volume Toward a United Front: the Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. Trotsky held the view that the united front was the normal operating procedure of a revolutionary party unless exceptional circumstances deprived it of this method of organisation. He described it as a ‘banal truism’ that ‘it is impossible to develop our activity in any way other than under the slogan of the united front’. The German ultra-left Communist Ruth Fischer argued that the united front must only be built ‘from below’ and denounced ‘this exaggerated emphasis, this worship of negotiations and working together with the leaders’. The Executive Committee of the International had already argued with the KPD, Fischer’s party, that counterposing building the united front from ‘above’ or ‘below’ was ‘entirely doctrinaire’. It argued that although any agreement at the top would be short lived without unity at the base, nevertheless, ‘it is clear that this broad worker’s front can be much more easily formed if leadership bodies refrain from opposing and sabotaging it’. It followed that revolutionaries should be willing to discuss with reformist leaders in a way which ‘facilitates removing the barriers that they stand ready to place in the path’ of the united front.

Trotsky elaborated this point saying that ‘if we were simply able to unite the working masses around our own banner or our own immediate slogans, and skip over the reformist organizations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in the present form’. But since the mass of workers are not prepared to join the revolutionaries then it remains necessary to engage them and their leaders in joint struggle. The result of not doing so, once again, then and now, is to isolate the militant minority from the mass of workers who are the only force that can in a united movement defeat their rulers.

Once such an agreement is reached, as it was in the Stop the War Coalition when it was set up more than a decade ago and as it is now in the construction of the People’s Assembly, it makes it easier for revolutionaries to mobilize rank and file workers. Armed with the agreement of a union General Secretary any militant is better placed to mobilize fellow rank and file workers for action. And in action the confidence of the rank and file grows in its own capacity to take control of the direction of the struggle and to shape it more fully in its own interests. And as rank and file self confidence grows so does the willingness even of those workers who follow reformist leaders to listen to the arguments put to them by revolutionaries.

One further consequence of the inability to make the proper distinctions between types of organisation and forms of consciousness among workers is the denigration of the need for revolutionary organization. After all, if there is just a direct action and horizontalist networks which ignore the mass of reformist workers why should activists need a specific form of organisation whose purpose is to organise the militant minority so that it can develop a strategy of uniting the whole class? It is usually said that without a revolutionary party there can be no united front. This is true. But, in an important sense, if there is no strategy of a united front there is no need for a revolutionary party. A sect or a horizontalist assembly will do as well. What these two mistaken forms of revolutionary organization have in common is a high level of militant rhetoric (‘general strike now’, ‘occupy everything’) and a low level of practical ability to actually organize united and effective forms of mass action. In short, they are long on revolutionary phraseology but actually undermine the purpose, and therefore the necessity, of revolutionary organization.

A different answer to the question of what activists should do is given by those on the left who answer this question with proposals for left of centre electoral projects that can challenge the mainstream social democratic parties. Such projects have been widespread in the last 10 years; Rifondazione in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, the NPA and the Front De Gauche in France, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Syriza in Greece, the SSP in Scotland, Respect in England. All have had success in the short term and provide valuable experience on which future efforts can be based. A minority have prospered over the long term. Most have not. Rifondazione, the NPA, the SSP and Respect have all exhausted their potential to create a viable alternative to mainstream politics. The Left Bloc has built a stable presence amidst a rising tide of protest. Die Linke remains an impressive and stable project, though commentators expect to see their representative severely reduced in elections this September. The Front de Gauche is an important step towards left unity in France, involving a major split from the Socialist Party, as well as the mass base of the Communist Party, but is yet to translate this into a qualitative leap forward for the left at the polls. Syriza is the expression of systematic coalition building over a long period in conditions of mass resistance including some 20 general strikes.

In short, the most successful left electoral projects have been those that were based on the largest movements in the first place and/or on the largest splits from mainstream social democracy. We have much to learn from the most successful experiences and the creation of an electoral alternative to neoliberal social democracy is certainly a valuable goal. But in any case it is clear that an electoral project alone cannot deal with the austerity we face in any reasonably effective timescale. Only direct forms of struggle can do that. Even in Greece, the one place where a left government is possible in the foreseeable future, Syriza activists often make the point that without pressure form a co-ordinated and powerful mass movement, a Syriza government would be impotent in the face of its many enemies.

This returns us to the question of dealing with the alignment of forces in the working class as it actually exists and not as we might wish it. This means acknowledging the continued presence of traditional reformist parties and the unions that support them, for however large the pool of those disillusioned with the traditional party set up might be, these old allegiances remain strong. And even if the new parties were a majority in the working class they would still need to propose unity with other traditionally social democratic workers in order to effectively fight our rulers. In short, the battle against austerity cannot be won electorally, must be won by extra-parliamentary struggle, and this requires a broad united front of all workers organizations and of those workers who hold no party allegiance.

There is, in Britain at the moment at any rate, a peculiar symbiosis developing between the advocates of electoralism and the horizontalist activists. And of course in a way it’s not surprising. If one rejects the model of working class unity that depends on a revolutionary organisation aiming to sustain unity through the mechanism of the united front then activity and politics fall into two separate but mutually reinforcing poles, ‘grass roots activism’ and electoralism. The two are isolated from each other, and so cannot inform each other. The same people who decry ‘top down campaigns’ then end up with the most restricted form of general politics, electoral participation. This is of course a common phenomena: where no effective dialectically unifying practice is found then two wrong poles reinforce one another.

A new revolutionary organization is needed

The revolutionary left has a crucial role to play here since the conception of the united front and of the necessary predominance of extra-parliamentary struggle is at the heart of the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. The revolutionary left may be weakened, in Britain at least, by internal degeneration produced by sectarian politics. But it can and must recover to play a vital ideological and practical role in the reconstruction of a fighting and united working class movement. This new revolutionary left cannot depart from hard won truths about the nature of power in the capitalist system or the general forms of organization needed to fight that power. But it cannot simply repeat the old forms of address or methods of organization.

In this respect we can say that although 1917 is not dead, 1968 is dead. By this I mean that we do not depart from those things that were decisively proved by the, as yet, greatest revolutionary upheaval in working class history: the need for revolution not reform and the need for a revolutionary organization as a home for militants. But in most of Europe the far left took a particular form in the struggles of 1968 and the 1970s. The origins of the far left in Britain lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party of the 1940s from which the Socialist Labour League (which became the Workers Revolutionary Party), The Militant Tendency, and the International Socialists (who became the Socialist Workers’ Party) all emerged. The Socialist Workers Party was the longest lasting of these not least because under Tony Cliff’s leadership sectarian tendencies, and there were inevitably such, were countered by drives, often at the cost of considerable internal division, towards engagement with the mass movement when any opportunity arose: the student movement of the late 1960s, the workers movement of the early 1970s, the anti-nazi movement of the late 1970s, the Great Miners Strike of the mid-1980s. As Cliff used to say ‘a vanguard is only a vanguard if it is connected to the rearguard, otherwise it is just a bunch of idiots in the woods’.

After Cliff’s death the party took the same outward looking approach when it was instrumental in the launch of the Stop the War Coalition and Respect. But using the split in Respect as the occasion, the dominant section of the leadership claimed ‘party building’ was incompatible with united front work and effectively marginalized work in the Stop the War Coalition and refused point blank to countenance launching a broad national response to the recession on the Stop the War model. Necessarily, sectarianism led to internal sclerosis and political degeneration in the leadership. How could it be otherwise? It is always the vitality of the struggle that refreshes and renews revolutionary organisations~if they can accommodate and react to its impulses. The far left can, it seems, deal with any amount of failure. This it is able to explain and survive. But success, short of revolution, has been its undoing. Sheer length of existence must also militate against the required flexibility. In the same length of time that the SWP existed the Bolsheviks had split from the Mensheviks, gone through the 1905 revolution, survived the reaction that followed, experienced the February 1917 revolution, made the October revolution, won a civil war, built an International and fallen to Stalinism. Revolutionary organizations are not meant to last so long in the same form, especially when such periods contain long phases of retreat. They must either succeed or be substantially rebuilt on a new basis. The possibility of internal regeneration has been lost. Now rebuilding must begin in another form. This is now the task that confronts us.

The organizations that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s had a particular view of the rank and file organization in the unions, a certain form of branch meeting, a press partly modeled on mainstream tabloids and partly on the Bolshevik press (though, truth be told, more on the former than the later). The principles that lay behind these tactics - the self-emancipation of the working class, the need for organization, the use of a party organ as an organiser - remain essential but the precise organisational model is outdated. That model was determined, indeed distorted, by the existence of mass Communist Parties and by the existence of strong left wings within social democracy. Until the fall of Stalinism in 1989 this necessary division in the socialist camp was a permanently disabling feature of left politics. This has all changed and the shape of reformist consciousness is different. There has been a communication revolution in our lifetime. All this requires careful thought and some practical experimentation. Some have greeted this challenge by throwing out the baby of Leninism with the bathwater in which it lay immersed for too long. The bathwater had to go. The baby does not. It needs, as infants do, to recapture the lessons of the past as well as to learn new things.

Let’s briefly restate some necessary continuities since they are what is being rejected in the current malignant atmosphere on the British left, and to a degree elsewhere. The essential idea of a revolutionary party arises from the nature of the struggle itself. The party does not create a vanguard, as sects believe. The vanguard is created by the nature of the struggle itself. Different groups~students, black communities, anti-cuts campaigners, trade unionists~enter struggle at different times, with different intensities and with varying results. Among these groups, and many others that could be mentioned, individuals emerge who have drawn general anti-system conclusions about nature of society. They are a practical, naturally arising, vanguard. But they are not organised. That they will be more effective if they are organised is blindingly obvious. And this is the essential argument for a revolutionary organization. Its basic constitution was spelt out by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: the revolutionary party is only distinguished from the broad mass of workers by its theoretical understanding of the general line of march and its internationalism. Marx and Engels formulation is worth recalling as we attempt to reconstruct a revolutionary organization admidst the rubble to which its sectarian advocates, in Britain at least, have reduced it:

'In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement'

These are the fundamental principles on which every genuine revolutionary organisation must be based. Its systematic connection to the mass of workers must then be remade where at all possible through the construction of united activity.

John Rees is a member of the Counterfire editorial board and the co-founder of the UK anti-war movement, the Stop the War Coalition. He is author of a number of books including The Algebra of Revolution, Imperialism and Resistance, A People’s History of London (with Lindsey German) and Strategy and Tactics.

John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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