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The “New” European Reformism and the Failure of the Broad Left Party Strategy

The capitulation of the SYRIZA government to the demands of European imperialism has sent shock waves across a wide section of the international Left for some very concrete and understandable reasons.

Rob Lyons

August 20, 2015
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This article was originally published on socialistaction.ca. Robert Lyons is a member of Socialist Action Canada.

This left developed in an academic atmosphere, proclaiming a new kind of “21st century socialism”. The latter is a vague formula, filled by all types of outmoded ideas dressed up in new clothing, and presented with a large helping of caricature of Leninism dressed up as anti-authoritarianism, linked to a project of “building socialism from below”. Its promoters had high hopes in SYRIZA as a socialist party of a new type.

Those hopes have been dashed, though various actors on the left have immediately rushed to the defense of Alexis Tsipras in an effort to salvage their own political projects, ventures they identified with SYRIZA in Greece and/or PODEMOS in Spain. Canadian writers like Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, authors of “The Making of Global Capitalism”, are examples of this tendency.

This is not the first time the international left has had to confront this type of betrayal of its hopes, and the hopes of the millions who supported their project. Recall the disintegration of the Party of Communist Refoundation in Italy after its forays into the halls of the bourgeois state. Its subsequent abandonment of its program, and the active support of its leadership for the neo-liberal policies of the Prodi government, left the once strong Italian left, and a Marxist left at that, scattered, disillusioned, grasping for strategies that vary from support for the Five Star Movement to the construction of a non-party ‘party’ explicitly incorporating the theoretical position that the working class, the motive force for historic social change, is no longer a potentially revolutionary subject.

As it was with Communist Refoundation, so it is with SYRIZA, and so it shall be with PODEMOS in Spain, the current darling of the impressionistic left.

Broad Parties and the Renewal of Reformism

The Spanish Marxists Josefina L. Martinez and Diego Lotito, writing in the quarterly “Ideas de Izquierda-Revista de Politica y Cultura” (Ideas from the Left- A Review of Politics and Culture), in an article titled “Syriza, Podemos and the Social Democratic Illusion”, refer to these political formations as a “new” reformism, whose political characteristics are a combination of Eurocommunism and classical social democracy. They write that these broad party formations have basically a bourgeois democratic DNA whose political aim is for a “decent” and democratic government which accepts the fundamentals of capitalist rule, whilst providing a reform agenda to make this rule more acceptable.

Prophetic words, given the actions of the Tsipras faction of SYRIZA, and the trajectory of PODEMOS under the consolidated control of the Iglesias faction, despite its internal quarrels.

They write:”The arrival of SYRIZA in government, and the emergence of PODEMOS has reopened the strategic debates within the European Left. Is it possible for a coalition of various Left forces to arrive in office via the parliamentary road, and to initiate processes of social transformation which would permit a “democratic (parliamentary) road to socialism”? This question has framed the strategic debate with European eurocommunism for nearly the past half century”. (IdI, #17, p.19 – my translation).

This link between the political program of the “broad party” and the structural reformism of this type of party formation is inherent in its design. In order to appeal to a notion of a “broad left”, it created a mixture of independent socialists, left social democrats, unaligned Marxists, militants in the social movements without much theoretical and political background, and so forth. Such a “broad party” must, of necessity, appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Thus, Terry Conway, a member of the British section of the Fourth International and its representative on the steering committee of Left Unity, a nascent “broad party”-type formation, writes of the need for a Goldilocks program for LU: not too Left, not too Right, but just Correct. Now leaving aside the non-dialectical, empiricist and schematic theoretical problems associated with describing such a concoction in this manner, the concept points precisely to the inherent flaws in the thinking behind the “broad party” strategy. If it is not a revolutionary party, then by definition it must be a non-revolutionary one — that is, a reformist party. The question posed by this strategy must be: will these broad party formations help or hinder the working class in organizing itself, independently of the bourgeoisie and its political institutions, to become the revolutionary subject which history demands it to be.
We say it is a hinderance.

Time for a Balance Sheet

There is in law, and in science, the notion of prima facie evidence. This is evidence whose existence proves the theory and context within which it is found. When such a test is applied to the strategy of building “broad party” formations, the evidence is overwhelmingly negative.

In Italy, as previously mentioned, the broad left which rallied behind the Communist Refoundation movement, roughly analogous to the origins of SYRIZA as a product of the Eurocommunist tradition, was decimated by the dashing of illusions as the CR faced the reality of trying to maneuver within the confines of the bourgeois state. Its own internal contradictions, contradictions expressed within all of these types of formations, ranging from those whose orientations were towards parliamentary cretinism, to those that wished to assert the primacy of the “social movements”, were exploded by the demands of the capitalist imperative of neo-liberal austerity, conditioned by the growing fiscal crisis of the state.

In France, under a different set of political circumstances, the broad party strategy promoted by the leadership of the Revolutionary Communist League, French section of the Fourth International, now has a history. The test of history has not been kind to those comrades. Buoyed by an initial influx of thousands of members, at one point reaching over 11,000, today it encompasses only a little over 10% of that number. It suffered split after split after split, with various groupings chasing the radical mirage of the Left Front and its actual politics of class collaboration. The dominant force within the Front, the Communist Party of France, is desperately trying to work some electoral deal with the social liberals of the French Socialist Party.

Today, the broad party formation, the New Anticapitalist Party, has three main tendencies, none of which commands a majority within the organization. The political incoherence and quasi-reformist practice of the leading tendency, under Francois Sabado, limits the capacity of the party to act as a pole of attraction to anyone, despite the revolutionary orientation of the Anticapitalism and Revolution current, the third largest and the most active tendency within the party today (*).

In Portugal, again despite the initial success of assembling a common front of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Portuguese section of the Fourth International, and the Eurocommunist split from the Portugese CP, plus a large Maoist grouping, around a program designed to deal with the immediate problems facing Portugese society, this Left Bloc faltered when it tried to position itself between the Portugese social democracy and the Portuguese CP. It has been slowly bleeding supporters and members, despite the fact that the greatest political and economic crisis since the Carnation revolution has provided more than ample opportunities for growth.

In Denmark, the broad party strategy has been, at the electoral level for the Enhedslisten (Unity List-the Red Green Alliance), a bit more successful. It is now seen as a parliamentary alternative to the social democrats, and has replaced the Socialist People’s Party as the second leading force of the Left. Yet despite this success, and despite the work of comrades like Pernille Skipper, one of the parliamentary representatives of the RGA who comes from the Danish section of the Fourth International, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP in Danish), the forces of revolutionary Marxism have not grown appreciably, and the strategy of the SAP is biased towards a parliamentary orientation.

While the Danish working class has been attacked by the social democracy, through its budgetary measures, and will face increasing attacks by the newly elected Liberal-led government, the question which will soon be put on the agenda of the trade unions and the Danish working class will be: how are you going to fight these attacks? Without a strong implantation in the workers’ movement, and with a broad party whose majority leadership will adapt to these pressures, a la SYRIZA — the leadership of the RGA already supported a budget of the social democrats which attacked the working class, and in 2011, the party’s MPs voted in favour of Danish participation in the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya on the basis that it was a humanitarian action — the failure to build a strong revolutionary Marxist current, organizationally and politically, will come back to haunt our comrades there.

In Mexico, where the rise of the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the subsequent liquidation of the Mexican Trotskyist organization into it, with the loss of thousands of cadres, is ample proof that the broad party strategy, as opposed to a united front strategy, has been an abject failure. From a party with three thousand members, and parliamentary representation at the national and states’ level, the Revolutionary Workers Party has been reduced to a few dozen members with little to no influence in the mass movement of rebellion now underway across the Mexican state. This group is the only section of the Fourth International in Spanish-speaking Latin America, another telling fact.

It is in Argentina, though, where the “build the broad party” strategy, and its alternative, met face to face. The Socialist Workers Movement (MST), an organization which has pursued a strategy of building a broad party of the new left, inspired by the New Anticapitalist Party project of the LCR, has for years searched in vain for a partner for this project. About five years ago, these comrades, whose organization has observer status at the International Executive Committee meetings of the FI, struck a deal with respected Argentine film maker Pino Solanas (his movie “The Hour of the Furnaces” is best known to English-speaking audiences), in an alliance called The Southern Project. After building this alliance, in anticipation of the 2013 elections, on a minimal program of reforms, Solanas announced one day out of the blue that his group was now in alliance with bourgeois figures from within the Peronist movement, dropping the MTS along the way.

On the other hand, the workers’ and popular sectors of Argentina were presented with a united front of three revolutionary Marxist, proudly Trotskyist organizations. They constituted the Workers’ and Left Front (FIT), which elected three national deputies, a score or more provincial deputies, and hundreds of councillors on municipal and communal bodies. This electoral front was based on a program of immediate, democratic and transitional demands related to the crisis of Argentine capitalism and its subjugation by imperialism, offering a way out of the crisis.

The program of the Front made it clear that there is no parliamentary solution to this crisis, and that the candidates of the FIT should not be seen as administrators of the bourgeois state, but rather as tribunes of the working class and popular sectors whose aims and influence would be put at the service of the workers in struggle. The FIT received 1.2 million votes, which are seen as voices of resistance to the attacks of the Argentine bourgeoisie and its imperialist allies.

Support for the FIT has been consolidated and is growing. Last month in the city of Mendoza, in the far west of Argentina, hard by the border near Santiago de Chile, the FIT candidate for mayor and the FIT deputy for the province, Nicholas del Cano, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, finished second ahead of the Peronist candidate, with 17% of the vote.

Some may argue that this as a case of Argentine exceptionalism, that Trotskyism in Argentina has a long continuity, and that this would be an expected outcome. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The European leadership of the Fourth International, when put to the test in the 1970’s, favoured a guerrilla warfare orientation. The destruction of the primary organization of this strategic orientation, the Revolutionary Workers’ Party-Revolutionary People’s Army, and its abandonment of Trotskyism and the Leninist-Trotskyist strategy of mass insurrection led by a revolutionary vanguard party, displays the other side of the coin of abandoning the construction of Leninist combat parties in favour of “broad parties of the Left”.

On a global scale, we are seeing the rise of workers’ and popular movements under the lash of a capitalism in crisis. From the streets of Athens to the mountain villages of Guatemala and Mexico, from the murderous repression in Honduras to the struggles of the steelworkers in Venezuela and Turkey, not to mention the awakening of the world’s largest and newest proletariat in China, the class struggle is sharpening. It is taking on an intensity and breadth not seen since the late 1940’s. The strategic orientations of the various tendencies of the workers’ and left movements are being put to the test.

For members of the Fourth International, this test is being played out in real time. To build the OKDE-Spartakos and a united front of the revolutionary left, ANTARSYA, or to give political and organizational support to the class collaborationist SYRIZA — that is the test in Greece.

To orient to the reformist Left Front, and to bury oneself in it as hundreds of the ex-members of the New Anticapitalist Party have done, or to build a revolutionary party which fights to assert the political independence of the working people and their self-organization — that is the strategic question in France.

To seek alliances with sectors of the petty bourgeoisie and build a broad party of the “New Left”, as is the orientation of the Argentine MTS, or to build a revolutionary party, based on a strategy of self-organization anticipating a moment of rupture, and as a tactic, engaging in an electoral front of the Trotskyist left to popularize the program leading to that eventuality, the strategy of the Socialist Workers Party, is the test posed by the politics of Argentina.

In Spain, the test of the orientation of the majority of the Spanish section to dissolve its organization into the populist swamp of PODEMOS, without any right of tendency or any existence as an organized political force, mirrors the liquidation of the Revolutionary Communist League in France. We all know how well that has turned out. Unlike France, however, the orientation of the PODEMOS leadership, which is to seek alliances with the social democrats as governing partners, will present the Fourth International with the same painful dilemna posed by the practice of the former Brazilian F.I. section, which led to the expulsion of the latter for aligning with those who openly attack the workers.

And, in Canada too, the choice is posed: to build a revolutionary Marxist party that intervenes sharply into the reformist labour-based NDP to form a class struggle left wing, or to abstain from the mass working class organizations, opting instead for a non-party ‘project’ involving small groups and individuals of the petty bourgeois left. Note: one such amalgam, the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, the brain child of the Panitch-Gindin-led Socialist Project, voted to dissolve itself in May of this year.

We believe the strategy of building a broad left party, or any substitute for a revolutionary workers’ party operating on Leninist principles, leads down the road directly to a reformist destination. History to date has proven that to be the case.

The capitulation to the E.U. agenda by the SYRIZA leadership offers a new opportunity to explain to an international audience the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary strategy and organization. The debate over these divergent perspectives is now vibrating within the ranks of the Fourth International. It is a much needed, and crucial, discussion.

(*) A third tendency within the NewAnticapitalist Party is Platform 3, which is composed by Anticapitalism and Revolution and the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire. It was formed for the last NPA Congress and obtained 22 percent of the votes.

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Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons joined the Canadian section of the USFI in 1971, after a stint as a journalist who covered the Prague Autumn of 1968, and as political organizer for the New Democratic Youth, the left wing youth group of the Canadian labour party based on the trade unions. Until recently, he was the International Coordinator for Socialist Action/Ligue pour lÁction Socialiste, a Canadian Trotskyist organization excluded from the EUSecFI, and in that capacity attended the founding conference of the Tendency for a Revolutionary International. He has been a wilderness and air ambulance pilot, a trade union organizer, and elected union leader, and for 10 years was an elected member of the Saskatchewan, Canada, provincial legislature representing a heavily unionized, working class constituency. He presently writes political commentary and organizes from a working class barrio in southern Costa Rica.

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