Broad to death: the problem with broad left parties

This article is based on the notes for an introduction given by Chris on 7th August which, along with the discussion afterwards, can be watched on YouTube:
‘Transform? The problem with broad left parties’ 

For over thirty years there have been repeated attempts to build a political space to the left of the Labour Party. From Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, to the Socialist Alliance to Respect to Left Unity and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, we have nothing to show for it except hard learned lessons. Transform, the initiative from Left Unity, Breakthrough and others, aims to cohere the many who were excited by Corbynism into another new left party. 

Transform will hold its founding conference on 25th November in Nottingham. That only one day has been put aside for founding a new party speaks to an unseriousness of purpose and hints that all decisions have already been made. I sincerely hope I am wrong about this and a serious debate takes place and not a stage-managed day of speechifying and rubber stamping.

The conference will be presented with a set of draft principals, opposition to racism, climate change and the such but as Nick Wrack has already discussed in his article ‘What sort of new Party for the Left’, there are numerous deficiencies especially when it comes to being able to clearly identify our enemies and in naming our future. I will not retread all of his arguments but start from concurring with him that a party that can’t see beyond capitalism can’t be a communist or socialist party. It can’t be a communist party because if you can’t name the enemy then you can’t name the alternative. 

Broad to Death

The last three decades we have had attempts to form anti-capitalist parties, electoral alliances and coalitions, and new left parties. Transform, an attempt to form what Left Unity calls “a new broad party of the left”, is cut from the same cloth. A “broad party of the left” is ultimately a euphemism, it means a party uniting reformists and revolutionaries. In principle, there is nothing wrong with communists working with others, be they environmentalists, free speech activists, pacificists or whoever. Partial unity, for immediate work can, and has, produced important wins or staved off outright reaction. Where I would say much of the left goes wrong is to elevate this temporary unity into permanent coalitions and parties. 

Proponents of broad parties will argue that the need for an alternative is clear. Maybe there’s a war on, maybe a mass strike wave has jolted the trade union bureaucracy to life, maybe the social movements have ripped up Seattle or Genoa or maybe people are just getting poorer and angrier. Today we have seen a prolonged and significant strike wave, with war in Europe and ecological breakdown as the backdrop. The argument goes that not everyone who wishes to address these issues are convinced communists or revolutionaries, so to bridge that gap we should create a political formation that remains ambiguous or silent when it comes to capitalism and keep talk of revolution and communism for dusty meeting rooms and pub corners for an anointed few. That way a left party would be able to attract everybody who knows the dice are loaded against the majority. A decade ago, Anticapitalist Resistance’s Phil Hearse wrote that: 

“The party will have to be broad enough to encompass the many thousands of people hostile to neoliberal capitalism, who want alternatives based on equality and social justice, but who are not yet ready to give their affiliation to a particular brand of socialism, or even call their radicalism ‘socialist’ at all. This is particularly applicable to young people whose political formation has taken place in an epoch where socialism appeared off the political map.”

The world looked a little different ten years ago yet his vision for a broad party holds sway over the movers of Transform. The argument for a broad and apparently inclusive party is seductive, especially if you are convinced that thousands, if not millions, are waiting for you to build it. Transform should avoid this trap because ultimately it treats the working class, along with the ever present political crutch of the youth, as ignorant. As if all we need to do is tell people that austerity is bad, war is bad, police violence is bad and so on like the working class doesn’t already know this. It is a reflection of the historical period we are in, to even talk about the future seems pointless when capitalism has seemingly cauterised the present from the past and the future. 

Some broad party proponents will say that we are in a position of weakness, all working-class parties have declined over the last 40 years, national politics has for the most part moved rightwards across the world. So, with revolution off the menu we should shrink our horizons to creating or reinvigorating broad parties. Possibilism is dominant. By possibilism I mean the renunciation or relegation of a communist programme and future for what appears easy to grasp in the here and now. Like their historical ancestors of the late 19th century, today’s Possibilists reduce the struggle for socialism to what Marx and Engels once described as “trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done”.1 The balance sheets of the Possibilists of Marx and Engels’ era are much the same as today’s. Carl Landauer wrote in 1967 that the “Possibilists became reformists in part because their original combination of belief in the inevitability of revolution with the “policy of the possible” was too inconsistent to endure”.2

Take for example Syriza in Greece, possibly the most successful broad party in Europe over the last decade. It became truly a mass force as dozens of general strikes against European Union and International Monetary Fund austerity made it impossible for the sclerotic centre left or conservative parties to govern. Syriza became the biggest party in Greece in January 2015 but not enough to form an outright majority, so it struck a deal with the right-wing chauvinist party, the ‘Independent Greeks’. Already at this point it is clear that not only was the left within Syriza having to move right or self-censor but Syriza itself was being moved to right. 

Syriza was a conglomeration of parties and tendencies and some of those, mostly Trotskyist  organisations, argued for a broad party as a way to strengthen the working class and democratic power in Greece. Yet after Alexis Tsipiras accepted the so-called third memorandum, essentially commiting the Syriza-led government to carrying out the austerity measures it claimed to oppose, the revolutionaries were left adrift. Some split straight away. Others hung on like Titanic’s Jack, politically frozen but well and truly dead. Those who did leave had left too late: at the September 2015 election the radical left that exited Syriza were held in contempt for going along with austerity; for attacks on environmental activists; for supporting the police and, in short, not being honest with Greek workers. Could anyone today say that Greek workers are better off, that democracy has been deepened?

The Syriza experience holds some important lessons, chief among them is that when it came to the crunch, the fact that the questions of reform or revolution, class independence or alliances, or simply whether a left government could come to power in isolation needed to be answered and for us as communists, and more importantly the Greek working class, Syriza went the wrong way on each question, succumbing to austerity, going against the democratic wishes of the majority of Greeks and in doing so losing all credibility among Greek workers in exchange for pats on the backs from finance ministers of hostile governments and the IMF. 

In Britain the attempts at a broad party have been altogether much smaller fry. Take Respect, a poorly named lash-up between the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), George Galloway and others hoping to ride the anti-war sentiment in constituencies with large Muslim populations. Galloway and co courted “community leaders”, local business bigwigs and patriarchs and left the socialist majority in Respect in a bind. Of course most religious leaders, regardless of sect, will not be too comfortable with abortion or gay and lesbian rights. In order to keep clinging to Galloway’s coat tails Lindsey German, then a leader of the SWP, now of Counterfire, proclaimed that gay rights were not a shibboleth. A remarkable claim that when challenged by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resulted in a physical attack and denials. Yet, in 2005 when Respect was drawing up its election manifesto gay and lesbian rights were dropped and covered with a vague commitment of being against “all forms of discrimination”. 

Who did that serve? Why would an organisation primarily led and composed by people who consider themselves revolutionary socialists of one form or another censor themselves? Because they knew that to do otherwise would bring the whole rotten lash-up to an end, Galloway would walk and patriarchal community leaders would not be far behind. This inability to tell the truth, to actually go to an electorate regardless of religion and put the case for gay and lesbian rights was just one example of this. The Respect 2005 manifesto called for other things like purging the police of racists but keeping the police basically intact as an instrument of class domination and capitalist order, legislation to prevent landlords from setting excessive rents but not the ending of landlordism. Such broad formations repeatedly end up with communists, socialists and revolutionaries moving rightwards or splitting. 

What Respect in a small way and Syriza in a very big way show is that the tendency of broad party formations is to the right and for a time the proponents of broad parties, who deep in their hearts and in their journals profess a commitment to superseding capitalism, end up going along with actions and policies that are to the detriment of the working-class majority and democracy. 

There are many more examples we could look at. We can’t catalogue them all here but the failure of Respect, the Socialist Alliance and Left Unity all boil down to a broad party strategy. Abroad we see Podemos holding up a capitalist government in Spain, Die Linke administering municipal governments with capitalist parties in Germany and in Italy Rifondazione has never recovered from being part of the capitalist governments of Romano Prodi. Not only do such methods require compromising on overthrowing capitalism as the final goal but ultimately giving up on significant change and an independent class position that could genuinely build a political alternative. Ultimately they all end in tears, with greater disunity and demoralisation.

Name the Future

In A Wizard of Earthsea, a 1968 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin,  a backwater villager called Ged/SparrowHawk, is discovered to have great power but in his pride releases a dark shadow that maims him. He travels over many miles and years in search of the creature’s true name, hunted and haunted by the creature throughout. It is only by naming the creature can Sparrowhawk break the dark power and go from being hunted to becoming the hunter. The twist, and if you wish to avoid spoilers you are 50 years too late, is that the creature’s true name is Ged’s, and that by naming himself he is made whole again. In Earthsea knowing the name of a thing gives you mastery over it and to give someone your true name is to trust your future to them.

On our own little island, on our own Earth, great power also lies at our hands. The horrors and defeats of the 20th Century do haunt us, the barracks communism of the Soviet Union along with all the other varieties of party dictatorships adorned with a red flag drowned genuine communism in blood, poverty and bureaucracy. Partly in response we have hidden our true name, deciding that it had become too tainted to speak of. It is here Sparrowhawk meets Mark Fisher, who in one of his last lectures argued that ‘it’s the very antagonism; the very alterity of the term “communism” which gives it potential power.’3 

We need to name a future that is irreconcilable with the capitalist present. Not just because Marx and Engels told us to disdain doing otherwise but, to quote Molly Nilsson it is because ‘you know you can’t win trying to beat them at their own game’.4 A communist future can’t be won by fighting within the political confines of the capitalist now. Communists must patiently argue against the broad party strategy because unity between competing interests and therefore different programmes can only ever be temporary. When it all comes crashing down we end up weakened because the political momentum of broad parties is always to the right. Instead, we should seek to publicly intervene, politically as communists, patiently yet boldly making the case for a future beyond capitalism and to give that future a name, communism. 

To that end, and regardless of what happens with Transform, we need an open struggle for a mass communist party. We can, and must, take a step towards a new communist party founded on democracy in all spheres of life, working class power, genuine human freedom, superseding capitalism and making a communist future tangible. 

For those committed to such a struggle there is no principle reason why we are not united in a single organisation. If anything our separation and isolation is, as Lucio Magri wrote, “the gravest sin for a communist”.5 We need to turn the anger and the despair at the current state of the world into a collective force that genuinely threatens the existing order.

  1. The Possibilists were a faction of the French socialist movement in the 1870s primarily associated with the political trajectory of anarchist Paul Brousse following the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871 from revolution towards reformist collaboration with the left and radical circles of the French state.

  2. Carl Landauer. “The Origin of Socialist Reformism in France” International Review of Social History 12, no. 1 (1967): 81–107.

  3. Mark Fisher and Matt Colquhoun, Postcapitalist Desire : The Final Lectures (London: Repeater Books, 2020), 53.

  4. Molly Nillson, ‘Absolute Power’, 2022.

  5. Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 2011), 17. ↩︎

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One thought on “Broad to death: the problem with broad left parties

  1. We have been sent this comment via email from Eileen, which we post with her permission:

    Whether we like it or not, more people who now veer towards the ‘left’ of the political spectrum are ‘buffet’ officianados about Socialism and Marxism than are fully signed up and committed members of a seriously left of centre ideology. The words ‘communist’ and ‘Marxist’ have been so demonised over the years that many people living now – whether they like it or not – have a built-in ‘shudder’ within them. for such terminology. Right or wrong … is really irrelevant. But many are now geuinely drawn towards the real philosophies embodied in those principles – it is the terminology that scares – and is used as a rod to beat people with. Mind you these are just the meanderings of a ‘Left’wing’ 78 year old, who is now horrified to be living in an age of Right-wing dictatorship and the capitulation – no the betrayal – of what was the counter-balance to governance by the elite and power bought by money.

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