In the last weekend in May, about 700 people gathered in Berlin for the “Marx is’ Muss” congress. From the outside, the annual event of the Marx21 network looked like a success. People in the know, however, could see that Marx21 was in the process of splitting. There were essentially three separate congresses taking place in parallel, in which each faction largely avoided the others’ workshops. Within a month, the network is set to split apart, though the majorities and the precise alignments have yet to be clarified.
Joseph Choonara of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of Great Britain has now made some oblique references to the upcoming break in International Socialism, the tendency’s theoretical journal. The faction fight in Marx21 was also discussed in July at an internal meeting of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), after the U.K. SWP’s Marxism festival in London. We will look at the political questions and try to draw lessons for revolutionary socialists in Germany and internationally.1Lennart Beeken was a member of Marx21 for three years before leaving the network in May. This article is based on a longer article on our sister site in Germany, Klasse Gegen Klasse.
A Post-Trotskyist Network
For many years, Marx21 was one of the largest organizations of Germany’s Trotskyist Left. The network was formed in 2007, at the same time as the merger of two reformist parties to form Die Linke (The Left). Linksruck, the German section of the IST founded by Tony Cliff, put everything into building the new party.2In the final chapter of his autobiography from 2000, Cliff described the growth of Linksruck, which claimed up to 1,500 members, as “a success story.” Before the book came off the presses, however, Linksruck imploded, after an incident quite similar to the “Comrade Delta affair” that shook the SWP 15 years later. What remained of Linksruck limped on until joining Die Linke. Tony Cliff, A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary (London: Bookmarks, 2000), 214–19.
Linksruck transformed itself into the Marx21 network, accepting new members who had no identification at all with Lenin, Trotsky, the IST, the theory of state capitalism, etc. In practice, of course, old Linksruck cadres remained in firm control of the new group. While they told themselves they were a revolutionary opposition inside a broad-left party, they were immediately accepted into the bureaucracy. Christine Buchholz of Marx21, for example, was placed on the new party’s executive committee. At one point, Marx21 had four members in the German parliament — but as far as we can tell, all four of them either lost their seats or renounced their association with Marx21.
Die Linke was always a party of what Rosa Luxemburg used to call “government socialism,” that is, it was a reformist party aiming to join coalition governments and administer the bourgeois state. While Die Linke was never able to join a national government — not for lack of trying! — it has participated in many state governments as a partner of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party. Die Linke, in fact, was already part of several governments on the day it was founded — the party has never not been in government. These “left” governments have been responsible for privatizations, deportations, evictions, social cuts, and everything else that capitalist governments do. This is precisely why Rosa Luxemburg said, “The role of Social-Democracy, in bourgeois society, is essentially that of an opposition party. It can only enter on scene as a government party on the ruins of bourgeois society.” As we have written elsewhere, Die Linke shows that “government socialism” is a dead end.
The central task of revolutionaries inside Die Linke would have been a head-on fight against “government socialism.” Marx21, however, sensing that such a policy would leave them isolated in a party full of bureaucrats, careerists, and ministers, refused to say anything along the lines of Luxemburg’s position. They believed that principled Marxist opposition to bourgeois governments would be incomprehensible to Die Linke’s voters. Instead, they argued that Die Linke should negotiate with the SPD and the Greens about forming coalition governments, but raise demands that would force the other parties to reject an agreement.
This was no abstract question: Before long, Marx21 member Janine Wissler had become the leader of Die Linke in the state of Hesse. In this position, she personally conducted negotiations to create a “red-red-green” government. These negotiations did eventually fail — but Wissler never once expressed an even vaguely Marxist position on the state.3Marx21 leader Volkhard Mosler tried to justify this “tactic” of opposing bourgeois governments by proclaiming, again and again, that you are in favor of joining bourgeois governments. In early 2021, Wissler was rewarded with a promotion as one of Die Linke’s two cochairs, leaving Marx21 in the process. She has since campaigned for “left” ministers and even signed on to the party’s disgraceful solidarity with Israeli bombardments of Palestinians. Marx21 has not uttered a word of criticism of its former figurehead.
Being Determines Consciousness
Wissler was not an isolated case. Dozens of Marx21 members took up jobs at the several state-financed bureaucracies around Die Linke. These included posts as parliamentary assistants in the Bundestag, at the party headquarters Karl Liebknecht House, at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, at the different union bureaucracies, and more. These jobs brought serious privileges for lefty students who might otherwise have trouble finding well-paying jobs. We are not aware of any statistics, but many Marx21 members were employed in reformist bureaucracies. This, in turn, narrowed the political outlook of the whole network. Its members could no longer think about politics independently of Die Linke — they saw the world through the distorting lenses of reformist bureaucracies.
Comrades would claim that these were “day jobs” that had no effect on their political militancy. Yet being, as Marx liked to say, determines consciousness. People with careers in bureaucracies financed by the capitalist state are, as a rule, not going to lead the fight to smash said state and its bureaucracies. In his article for ISJ, Comrade Choonara makes a delphic reference to the material pressures that have led Marx21 to the brink of a split:
By early 2023, Marx21 was also gripped by internal debates, reflecting how a part of its leadership seems to have oriented on sections of the trade union bureaucracy. It remains to be seen what will emerge from the resulting debates in the Marx21 network, but it is unlikely to be an enlarged revolutionary party.
Here, Choonara is referring only to one particular form of adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. A number of years ago, Luigi Wolf and other leading members of Marx21 launched a for-profit company called Organizi.ng. Inspired by the ideas of Jane McAlevey, a theorist of the U.S. trade union bureaucracy, they began offering their services to the ver.di, one of Germany’s largest unions.4As Choonara points out, McAlevey’s “organizing” concept is a thoroughly bourgeois form of working-class politics that opposes socialism. Klasse Gegen Klasse has published a number of Marxist critiques of “organizing” in German. Their company would pay students to do things that unions would normally do in-house, such as trying to mobilize workers to strike. For the bureaucracy, this reduces labor costs by outsourcing: instead of hiring staffers with relatively high wages, they could pay an outside firm to do the work for less.
Over time, many Marx21 members became involved in this business model. As a result, it was structurally impossible for them to criticize betrayals by union leaders — they are, after all, constantly trying to acquire contracts from these same traitors. Today, Marx21 is hesitant to say anything about even the bureaucrats’ most despicable betrayals, such as when, in March of this year, the ver.di leadership sold out the postal workers’ strike and signed a contract with wage increases below the inflation rate. For the German followers of Tony Cliff, this represented an enormous shift. Cliff had been a principled opponent of both right-wing and “left-wing” bureaucrats in the workers’ movement — he called on rank-and-file workers to organize independently.
Choonara correctly criticizes this adaptation to “organizing.” But he neglects to mention all the other ways Marx21 became part of pro-capitalist bureaucracies. In the debates inside Marx21, many opponents of the “organizers” are themselves high-paid union staffers or Die Linke bureaucrats. A century ago, the Bolsheviks described how such bureaucracies represent the “social roots of opportunism.” These “social roots” and opportunist politics are the basis of Marx21’s crisis.
Crisis of Die Linke
Die Linke is now trapped in what will likely be its terminal crisis. The party is divided between supporters of Sahra Wagenknecht, a social chauvinist with a huge following on social media, and the “government socialists” serving as ministers in different state governments. Neither side is progressive: Wagenknecht is calling for more deportations, while her opponents — who occasionally use anti-racist slogans — are actually carrying out deportations every day.
Amid this crisis, nothing like a revolutionary socialist opposition is visible inside Die Linke. Marx21, for example, is calling for unity of these two retrograde factions, arguing — correctly — that the implosion of Die Linke without an alternative would be a historic defeat for the German Left. Crucially, however, Marx21 refuses to take any measures to build such a left alternative.
This crisis of a reformist party could be an opportunity for revolutionary socialists to build an independent political alternative centered on the class struggle. Klasse Gegen Klasse, the sister site of Left Voice, launched a campaign against Die Linke’s joining yet another coalition government with the SPD and the Greens in Berlin. This campaign was the beginning of a cooperation with left-wing forces inside Die Linke’s youth organization. In January, these young people held a conference in Berlin, with over 100 people calling for a “revolutionary break” with reformism. Marx21, opposing any such break, has fallen deeper into crisis. Over the last few months, the organization has divided into three factions:
- The “organizers,” who seem to make up the largest group but not the majority. They want Marx21 to tone down its Marxist propaganda and fully commit to semi-conspiratorial work inside the different bureaucracies. This grouping has the support of Volkhard Mosler, the founder of the IST in Germany back in the 1960s.
- The “Middle Faction,” made of old Linksruck leaders like Christine Buchholz. They would like to continue more or less as before. Some of their supporters are still employed by the bureaucracies, while many have switched jobs, but they all retain the common illusion that they can only have influence via Die Linke.
- A left faction, “For an International Socialist Tendency,” or FIST. They are calling for a return to the policies of Tony Cliff. They want to go back to the times before Marx21 and even before Linksruck, when IST supporters formed a Socialist Workers Group (SAG) in German. Even this faction, however, still contains union bureaucrats.
A meeting to formalize the split is set to take place in August. It’s not yet clear how the chips will fall. Who will keep the Marx21 brand and apparatus? Based on the ISJ article, however, we assume that the “organizers” will break with the IST, while the Middle Faction and FIST will both try to remain connected to the tendency — even though it seems unlikely they will form a joint organization.
Choonara’s article “Revolutionaries and Elections” makes an entirely demoralized impression. Looking at different electoral initiatives by revolutionary socialist organizations over the last 20 years, he concludes that they were all failures — with the People Before Profit alliance in Ireland as a partial exception. Despite writing almost 20,000 words, the comrade ignores the Workers Left Front — Unity (FIT-U) in Argentina — one electoral project that has been modestly successful for the revolutionary Left for more than a decade. The FIT-U has won over a million votes in national elections, with results in some poor working-class areas up to 25 percent, and currently has four members of parliament.
Why did the comrade ignore the best example from his survey? This is likely no mere oversight: Choonara’s central thesis is that revolutionaries need to run in elections either alongside reformists or, if no such reformists can be found, then with an explicitly reformist platform. The FIT-U does not correspond to this model, showing that revolutionaries can run independently, with an anti-capitalist, class struggle platform, and still reach the masses.5We hope to be able to respond to Choonara’s article in depth soon.
Marx21 was founded 15 years ago on the hypothesis that revolutionaries can reach mass influence via a reformist party. What are the results? Several socialists have secured cushy jobs. Beyond that, the project has been a failure: Marx21’s political influence is likely less than that of its predecessor, Linksruck — and that’s before the upcoming split. As we have argued elsewhere, broad left parties are a dead end for the revolutionary Left.
In the last two decades, a sad common sense has developed in much of the international Trotskyist Left: a conviction that revolutionary socialists can win real influence only if we present ourselves to the masses with some kind of less-than-revolutionary project. Die Linke is one expression of this strategic conception. Others, like the RESPECT alliance launched by the U.K. SWP, were even less successful, as Choonara admits. As we have written in a debate with the Tempest collective, the FIT-U shows that there is an alternative to this defeatist idea. And it’s not just Argentina: there have been similar projects in Chile, Mexico, and Brazil, in which socialists have formed a pole of class independence in opposition to reformism. This is a model that could be pursued in Germany, the United States, and other countries: we can work together to build an alternative to Die Linke, the DSA, and all “government socialists.”
The experience of the Revolutionary Break from Die Linke shows that, amid a crisis of left reformism, there are possibilities to win over sectors of the youth and the working class with bold revolutionary policies. We hope that the crisis in Marx21 can be an opportunity for comrades to rethink these strategic conceptions. We particularly call on the comrades of the left faction, FIST, to begin a discussion about how to build up a strong revolutionary Left in Germany, resisting the adaptations to reformism that destroyed Marx21. The pages of Left Voice are open to all comrades, from different traditions, to discuss ways for revolutionary socialists to work together and create anti-capitalist alliances.
|↑1||Lennart Beeken was a member of Marx21 for three years before leaving the network in May. This article is based on a longer article on our sister site in Germany, Klasse Gegen Klasse.|
|↑2||In the final chapter of his autobiography from 2000, Cliff described the growth of Linksruck, which claimed up to 1,500 members, as “a success story.” Before the book came off the presses, however, Linksruck imploded, after an incident quite similar to the “Comrade Delta affair” that shook the SWP 15 years later. What remained of Linksruck limped on until joining Die Linke. Tony Cliff, A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary (London: Bookmarks, 2000), 214–19.|
|↑3||Marx21 leader Volkhard Mosler tried to justify this “tactic” of opposing bourgeois governments by proclaiming, again and again, that you are in favor of joining bourgeois governments.|
|↑4||As Choonara points out, McAlevey’s “organizing” concept is a thoroughly bourgeois form of working-class politics that opposes socialism. Klasse Gegen Klasse has published a number of Marxist critiques of “organizing” in German.|
|↑5||We hope to be able to respond to Choonara’s article in depth soon.|