Review – The Political Leap: Communist Strategy Today

The recent Notes From Below issue, ‘The Political Leap: Communist Strategy Today’, features an impressive range of writers from trade unions, abolitionist, feminist and anti-racist movements. This brings to mind the Marxist Unity Group bulletin slogan: ‘If every cook must govern, then every cook must write.’ This comradely review intends to stimulate debate and demarcate political positions to develop a strategy on a higher political plane. In the words of the Notes From Below editorial team: ‘the first step to bringing together like-minded militants committed to doing everything we can to achieve our political goals’.

Communist Strategy Today

The issue’s introduction, ‘Planning Our Escape,’ alludes to the merger formula, a historical strategy seeking the unity of the socialist and workers movement. However, this issue does not try to approach strategy ‘as it has been debated historically’. I believe this approach is inherently limiting, removing the ability to place the merger formula in its historical context and to evaluate its successes and failures. After all, the merger formula was first developed by Marx & Engels to draw a historical narrative of the mission of a confident working class. Crucially, running alongside and amplifying mass work inside the trade unions was an explicitly socialist political project, i.e. a political party. This is a running theme through several contributions in the current issue and my main criticism. The authors, scarred by the failures of Trotskyism and its ‘sect model’, assert we are starting entirely anew.

I strongly agree with the criticisms made of Trotskyist sects: bureaucratic centralism with a ‘small cadre with tight discipline’, theoretical rather than political unity, no right to form open factions, ‘build the party first’ sectarianism involving the formation of lowest common denominator popular fronts and ‘left’ trade union groupings which do not engage in’ the political work of supporting and engaging in workers struggle’. However, Trotskyism’s political and organisational errors should not blind our comrades to what has been achieved in the past and what could be applied now. The Political Leap contains wide reflections on organising successes and failures but lacks a revolutionary strategy to challenge the capitalist state. We as revolutionaries should deepen this issue’s conclusions by advancing the best practices from a long and proud communist tradition that we should see ourselves within and not outside. 

Trediunionizm is dead, long live trediunionizm!

Syndicalism and the New Limits of Trade Unions’ opens with a Marxist critique of trade unionism and the return of ‘militants of the workplace’. Regarding the relationship between Marxism and trade unionism, the authors quote Lenin’s ‘What Is To Be Done’, describing how socialist consciousness does not develop spontaneously from economic struggles. In debates with the ‘economists’ (who elevated workplace demands above politics), Lenin believed the politicisation of workplace struggles had to come ‘from without’ (outside the economic struggle), i.e. communists organised in a party agitating for political demands. However, the authors, self-described ‘syndicalists’, ‘assume that class power and communist politics will emerge spontaneously from the development of economic struggles’. This position echoes arguments made by Bakunin against Marx during the First International and contradicts how mass socialist organisations have been built in the past. We should trust in the intentional organisation of a politically aware class and not bow down to spontaneity.

In more recent times, last year’s strike wave did not spontaneously radicalise wide layers of the working class. For further analysis, Vincent Bevins’ ‘If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution’ details uprisings, including the Arab Spring, Occupy and BLM, which resulted in eventual defeat. The lack of a revolutionary strategy is evident through interviews with organisers lamenting the lack of an established party capable of naming political demands and consolidating spontaneous action. In its absence, temporary concessions gained from ‘the streets’ or ‘strike waves’ followed an eventual dissipation of activity, co-option of demands and repression from an emboldened capitalist state. Therefore, it’s unclear why 150 years of communist history and conclusions made on organising, political education, the merger formula, and developing worker leaders from militants in the Paris Commune, Petrograd, Yan’an and the present are deemed ‘irredeemable’.

Simply put, ‘without a party, we have nothing’. I agree with the ‘syndicalist’ binds of trade unionism, where, eventually, a ‘militant minority moving towards unions will abandon their efforts once they have endured enough defeats’. However, without a mass party to ground workplace struggles towards broader and shared political goals, the result will always be the capitulation to economic struggles, which is the logic of capitalist reformism. As in ‘Planning Our Escape’, the failures of Trotskyism condemn the communist movement entirely. To break the attritional and defensive activity in trade unions, the end goal of communist organising in the workers’ movement is abolishing the wage-labour system.

Rather than relegating ourselves to the role of political commentators lamenting the crisis of the ‘communist party-form‘, let us break the impasse and move beyond the sect model and towards mass socialist organisation. If we believe the emancipation of the working class only comes from the working class, then the history of working and communist movements leads us to the party. What could a revolutionary strategy entail? The history of the socialist movement suggests uniting the rank and file of the ‘existing left’ through a political programme and building trust through activity inside and outside the trade unions. Our role as communists is to build political structures alongside upsurges in struggles. 

Corbynism and its consequences

‘Now the Dust has Settled: Corbynism in retrospect’, a reflection from Callum Cant on attempts to put ‘politics in command’ during the Corbyn years. Comrade Cant details a struggle between the ‘Labourist Left’ and ‘Counter Attack Socialists’. This formulation resonates with communists who compromised their political horizons to organise inside the Labour Party tactically. However, the failure of Momentum to develop into an independent political organisation meant a crushing election defeat (in a similar dynamic to other spontaneous movements described earlier), resulting in the reversal of any attempt at Labour democratisation. The result is a turn to ‘localism’ into activities such as trade and tenant unions. This criticism is not to denigrate mass work – vital to building working class confidence – but when done without any political grounding, it leaves the capitalist state unchallenged, attritional cycles of gains and concessions and burnout of the communist cadre. So what resulted in the non-existent institutional legacy of Corbynism? It all stems from a lack of working class political independence.

On this point, it’s worth highlighting the diverging fortunes of Momentum, whose first all-member convention only attracted 197 members and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which still contains 50,000 members following the defeat of the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns. US communists, as described in Building Cadre: An interview with the Communist Caucus’, have the DSA, a membership-based political organisation with local branches with activity co-ordinated through an elected governing body and sovereign national convention. Its relative political independence rather than a mere appendage of the Democratic Party resulted in the DSA surviving the defeats of the Sanders campaign. Furthermore, the different political tendencies within the organisation can form open factions and polemicise across publications. This results in raising political education through experiences in mass struggle and debate. 

This builds the organisation as wider layers of the working class can see clearly demarcated political positions, an argument made in Lenin’s ‘But Who Are The Judges?’. This fundamental aspect of ‘a party’ is outlined in ‘Lenin’s Political Thought’ by Neil Harding as the ability to build ‘principled unity’ through ‘open controversy over theory and strategy’. This unity must be ‘worked for’ and not a ‘lowest common denominator’. Instead, ‘competing trends’ should ‘openly declare their views and expose their differing standpoints’.

The contrast with Momentum could not be more evident. Corbyn’s proximity to state power resulted in the ‘Labourist Left’ hollowing out its democratic structures. This hollowing significantly weakened the ability of ‘Counter Attack Socialists’ to develop the organisation’s independence, political education, and rank-and-file strategy. The justification was that the spectre of Trotskyist sects had an outsized influence on Labour Party strategy on their basis to attend meetings and organisational discipline. However, this displays a lack of confidence in the capacity to out-organise these groups to win support from millions of workers for socialism.

Comrade Cant concludes by calling for a turn away from Labour Party tailism and towards a ‘need to reaffirm our political confidence in a horizon of revolution, and develop plans that help us to approach that question as a serious, practical one.’ Frustratingly, such a revolutionary strategy is limited to ‘advocating a program of non-reformist reforms and using their pursuit to create autonomous forms of working class power.’ Once again, the party form and the experience of communists in similarly politically disorganised times are conspicuous in their absence. 

Organisation(?)

‘Notes on Organisation – Revisited’ by Sai Englert opens with a call for ‘organisations that allow us to learn from the reality of the class struggle, support working class self-organisation, and agitate for the merging of economic and political demands’. Comrade Englert evokes the First and Second International, where socialists following the failed 1848 revolutions had to ‘start again’. Communists such as Marx and Engels debated against ultra-left Bukuninist calls to reject organisation and rely on the spontaneity of the masses. On their political right, those who wanted to enter capitalist government as junior ministers. These strategic questions and the need to maintain a revolutionary centre are relevant and under-theorised today.

So, how did communists make ‘the political leap’? As described throughout the issue, Englert again describes the formula needed to ‘merge these struggles and turn unions, community campaigns, and social movements into interconnected institutions of revolt’. Englert says this activity must be done ‘within the workers’ movement’, providing concrete examples of how communists can develop rank and file militancy through rep networks, strike bulletins and overall independence from the trade union bureaucracy. However, he claims we should avoid having a “centralised” party “for now”. This claim contradicts the experiences of comrades in the First and Second International, where the ‘merger formula’ described by Comrade Englert was firmly rooted in the activity of political parties such as the SPD and RSDLP.

In today’s context, we cannot ignore the question of party. How do wide threads of activity co-ordinate and develop? How do broad sections of the working class, including liberation and communist struggles, unite under the same organisation? For example, the Black Panthers were an explicitly anti-racist and anti-imperialist party. Would trade union activity ‘participating in and supporting these struggles as crucial acts of worker self-activity’ develop further through a party? The obvious example is the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) members’ trade union, tenant and sharecropper organising. So when is ‘now’? We reject stageist arguments – which arbitrary point should communists build their organisation on moving mass work into a higher political plane? The merger formula’s success builds socialist organisation and vice versa. Communists and the working class naturally favour unity where joint work asks, ‘Should we not be in the same organisation’? 

Comrade Englert asserts we should prepare ‘for the next waves of struggle, precisely in the moments before their emergence’. However, should the organisational question be addressed now and not in an undefined future? I agree that this cannot be solely ‘imported by socialists’; revolutionary consciousness does not develop spontaneously either. Connecting workplace and capitalist exploitation, passing down organising methods and building effective organisation have historically come from the socialist movement. In particular, the most advanced layers of the working class, i.e., the socialist cadre or its historical term ‘vanguard’.

As in ‘Planning Our Escape’, I agree with Comrade Englert’s characterisation of “small, ideologically untainted, and hyper-voluntarist’ Trotskyist sects and the need to ‘avoid the mistakes of the past’. But lessons learnt should move our movement forward. He cites numerical weakness as a reason not to pursue a party project, but tens of thousands of Marxists across the UK exist. The immediate issue is our disorganisation. Therefore, our orientation should seek the unity of Marxists in a mass party to increase our capacity and solve our current fragmentation. 

History has shown that political organisations built on programmatic unity and freedom of debate have a rapid snowball effect. This effect is true not only between self-described Marxists but also between layers of organisers within Tenants’ unions, police monitoring projects, and anti-raid networks listed by Comrade Englert. As Lenin said in ‘What Is To Be Done, ‘agitation must be conducted concerning every concrete example of…oppression.’ He correctly states the undemocratic nature of the sects stifles political development and the capacity for political unity.

However, this failure is due to the bureaucratic centralism of the sects, importing an ahistorical conception of the Bolsheviks who operated underground throughout Tsarist autocracy and then a brutal Civil War. As described in my introduction, working-class organisations should encourage open factions and freedom to polemicise to build the organisation and raise the political education of members through debate. Comrade Englert concludes that rebuilding the socialist current requires ‘open political meetings, debates, and arguments’ as necessary ‘for developing truly democratic organisations.’ I hope he believes this should be the case with other Marxists in the same party. 

We need more Organisation

The issue concludes fittingly with The Organisational Question’ from the Notes From Below editors. I agree that ‘disorganisation is no longer an option given the accelerating crisis of our moment’. However, the solutions are vague, with ‘vanguardism and electoralism’ described as having ‘distinct shortcomings’. It would be helpful to elucidate what is meant by ‘vanguardism’ and ‘electoralism’. Current sectarian conceptions of ‘vanguardism’ and Labour Party’ electoralism’ warrant criticism but should be differentiated from its broader and more successful usage in the communist movement. This failure to contend with broader communist movements results in the limiting assertion that there is ‘no one we can ask, no one who can tell us what to do.’

I’m afraid I have to disagree that we should ‘orientate away from the existing left’ as a revolutionary strategy. I agree the leadership of Trotskyist sects is dominated by a self-reproducing bureaucracy with sections holding reactionary and chauvinistic views. These are significant barriers towards building Marxist unity. However, our attitude inside the trade unions is to ‘subordinate the bureaucrats’. We should adopt the same approach with the thousands of communists in organisations. An inclusive vision of a party capable of bringing together rank-and-file activity across trade unions, movements and Marxist organisations would have a snowball effect.

I do not believe our period is so exceptional that communist unity is simply unattainable and not worth pursuing. Here, I agree; rather than ‘arguing about which flavour or brand of communism’, we should outline a shared starting point – a political programme and commitment to democracy. Though I would be cautious about a syndicalist’ orientation towards workplace organising’, I believe as communists standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, it’s not beyond our capacity to simultaneously organise in trade unions alongside building socialist organisation. As outlined earlier, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. 

Conclusion

We should praise Notes From Below for debating and theorising communist strategy. I strongly agree that ‘mass and democratic forms of organising’, a ‘collective space to support ourselves as communist militants’, to ‘cohere a layer of comrades with a shared perspective’ is what this moment demands. However, throughout history, Marxists called this organisation a party. This obfuscation limits its historic achievements and what is possible now. I sincerely believe a project towards a non-sectarian Marxist party is achievable now. Notes from Below comrades should be driving that process rather than waiting on the outside!