14. The dispute with the Merseyside comrades


The 1990s involved the Socialist Party and the CWI ‘swimming against the stream’ internationally – both in a general sense given the ideological strengthening of capitalism in society through the continuation of the boom, and in its reflection within our ranks. In similar historical periods the labour movement and particularly its Marxist revolutionary wing was forced to confront opportunist and ultra-left theoretical backsliding. As we have remarked many times, the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the defeat of the first Russian revolution 1905-07 faced many splits, to both the ‘left’ and the right. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party – technically then still a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party – is usually pictured by bourgeois and petty bourgeois critics as a ‘dictator’ who brooked no opposition within his ranks. Yet he was defeated on crucial questions on a number of occasions.

For instance, after the defeat of the first Russian revolution, a ‘boycott’ of the tsarist-convened Duma (parliament) was initially carried within the Bolshevik ranks, with Lenin dissenting from this decision. This was not the only example of a mistaken ultra-left position adopted by the Bolsheviks. Lenin, however, did not resort to tantrums or the big stick to bring the ranks into line. Experience had taught the Bolsheviks that Lenin was usually correct and the decision was changed accordingly. Equally, given the defeat and isolation of the Bolsheviks, opportunist trends developed within  Bolshevik circles at this time. This was manifested in the ‘liquidators’ who abandoned previously held revolutionary positions, both in terms of ideas and the organisation of the party. Lenin and his collaborators came out firmly against both positions. Without Lenin engaging in this vital struggle – which used up considerable time and energy, involving numerous articles and even books – the ranks of the Bolshevik party would not have remained politically intact for the great task of the Russian revolution in October 1917. Nor would the cadres of the party have been prepared for the mighty events which developed, including the revolution itself.

Superficial, dry, academic bourgeois and petty bourgeois historians invariably picture the arguments and political clashes that took place as ‘squabbles’. Marxism, on the other hand, sees the most important of them as an unavoidable and even necessary period of clarification, of polishing the theoretical weapons to be used in future battles. In the 1990s, first of all Militant Labour and then the Socialist Party, as we have seen, were engaged in serious discussions over political differences that arose, which sometimes resulted in defections from our ranks. Two of the most important developments involved the sharp political discussions that took place between our Scottish supporters and the national leadership – which we will deal with later – and a similar clash involving some former leading comrades in Merseyside.

Once the dockers’ strike was over the subterranean battle between the national leadership of the Socialist Party and a number of comrades around Dave Cotterill came to the surface. He had played a prominent role, along with some of his supporters, at a certain stage in the heroic struggle in Liverpool. However, they were in the process of throwing overboard political positions which in the previous period they had supported. There was an objectively difficult situation which had developed in the city, particularly in the aftermath of the defeat brought about by the abandonment of the Liverpool councillors and the Merseyside labour movement by the treacherous Kinnock and right-wing trade union leaders.

Liverpool was a beacon of struggle and not just for Militant. We had managed to build the strongest base for the ideas and methods of Militant in the city. At our height, we had approximately 1,200 members in our Merseyside region, who effectively exercised a decisive influence both within the Labour Party and increasingly in the trade unions. We also produced a weekly supplement, Mersey Militant, to the national weekly newspaper. However, having gone much further in the city in building a base than anywhere else in Britain, the subsequent decline was also greater. Instead of politically and organisationally steeling those who were left in the ranks of Militant Labour for a difficult period, Dave Cotterill reinforced the deep scepticism and pessimism of some who were politically tired.

The differences, as is usually the case, developed first in what appeared to be secondary issues of organisation. The terrain in which we were operating in the 1990s was not favourable to a significant growth in our forces. Because of the consequent contraction in our financial base – in the regular weekly contributions from supporters and sales of the weekly paper and theoretical journal – it became necessary for us to carry through what, at times, was a very painful pruning in full-time staff and eventually selling our large premises. Some of the trade unions in Britain faced a similar situation later. They were under an onslaught from Cameron’s coalition government, involving a slashing of facility time – time off from normal work for trade unionists to represent workers – as well as the undermining of the check-off system, the automatic collection of dues by the employer for the union.

Militant faced a similar situation in the 1990s and the necessary cutbacks were not enthusiastically embraced, to say the least, particularly by some of the full-time staff. Merseyside, in the past the jewel in the crown of our organisation, was treated extremely favourably by the national organisation. It received more financial help to employ more full-timers than any other area in the country, which was justified given the prominence of our position in the region. But the change in the situation in the 1990s when the Merseyside organisation had contracted – to a greater extent than  in other areas – meant special treatment was no longer justified. Faced with this situation, Dave Cotterill and those around him resisted the decisions of the national organisation to cut our staff. Moreover, they increasingly linked their organisational differences on this and other issues to a political challenge.

Their organisational criticisms represented a departure from the norms of revolutionary organisation and were directed against the basic ideas of Marxism on how a revolutionary party should be organised. They were not unique in this. In the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological offensive of capitalism, a major target for the opponents of ‘outdated Marxism’ was the idea of a party, which was now to be replaced by networks and spontaneous organisation. This ‘anti-party’ mood is still alive and kicking today. The Occupy movement, some of the Indignados in Spain, the occupiers of the squares in Greece and most strikingly the Five-Star Movement in Italy, gave a boost to this mood. This compelled us to come out in defence of the traditional forms of organisation of revolutionary Marxism. This has relevance today. Clearly feeling that social democracy is discredited and mass revolt is developing, a campaign has been launched by the media against organisations on the ‘left’ who could become a rallying point for mass discontent.

Then and now we stand completely in defence of the ideas – properly explained – of democratic centralism as the best means of organising a party which seeks to change society. One of the issues raised in relation to the controversies in both Scotland and Merseyside, was that of the autonomy of regions within the structures of our organisation, and specifically how this related to finance. While we have a centralised organisation – which arises from the tasks of socialists in this era where the ruling class itself is highly centralised in its confrontation with the working class – nevertheless, the regions and branches have great autonomy. This applied in general to our party, but also in relation to issues like finance. On the other hand, our method of organisation did not merely mean linking up formally separate local groups. Even from the beginning the building of an authoritative political leadership and organisation on the national level was the key priority. On this basis, I moved to London in 1964 as the first full-timer, at least in the rebirth of our organisation in the 1960s.

There are suspicions – again, particularly in the new generation whose views have been coloured by what they interpret as the legacy of Stalinism – that power through this method of organisation will be concentrated in the hands of a ‘bureaucratic leadership’. Specifically, what safeguards are there in the Socialist Party against the bureaucratic degeneration of the leadership? First of all is the requirement to convene regular meetings of the National Committee (NC), which elects and controls the Executive Committee (EC). It is the responsibility of the national leadership to convene these meetings, as well as regular congresses. There is also a provision for branches to demand an emergency conference. Nonetheless, what ‘guarantee’ is there that a strictly democratic regime would exist? Nobody raised these issues within our ranks, but there is an unspoken questioning in the minds of many workers and young people about inherent bureaucratic tendencies. Moreover, this is not a new question.

At one stage Leon Trotsky was asked to give “a clear and exact formula on democratic centralism, which would preclude false interpretations or bureaucratic degeneration”. He replied that there is no one formula that once and for all would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. “A party is an active organism that develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions… The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in struggle. A political line predominates over the regime. First of all, it is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organisational forms should correspond to the strategy and the tactic.”1 We commented in 1996: “Trotsky then makes a fundamental point: ‘Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime.’”2

Of course, this does not mean that a party with a correct  programme will automatically have correct organisational methods. That is an issue for debate and discussion as to what emphasis should be given to democracy or centralism, depending on the different situations. A formula for democratic centralism must find different expression in the parties of different countries and in different stages of development of the same party. When the problem concerns political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy is paramount when the party considers it may need to examine critically its actions.

Many critics have aimed general and unspecified criticisms against the alleged undemocratic methods of organisation of Marxism, Bolshevism and then Militant, which stands in this tradition. However when we have set out and explained our ideas we have not received a single serious criticism of either our general approach, the theory of democratic centralism, or the concrete actions which have been taken by our party since its inception. Our critics have not responded when we pointed out that we never expelled or disciplined any individual, group or trend of opinion in the history of Militant or the Socialist Party on political grounds. In the case of the Liverpool comrades, as they described themselves – in effect ex-members of the Socialist Party – when we took action, it was because they took the collective property of the Socialist Party, including our Liverpool headquarters which Dave Cotterill and Michael Morris sold off once they left our ranks. Their organisational betrayal, however, was not an accident but was rooted in false political perspectives, which in turn arose from the very difficult objective situation which existed in the 1990s. The differences were centred on all the major questions of the era: perspectives for the world economy, the collapse of Stalinism, why it took place and its consequences.

The dockers’ strike had temporarily halted the rightward political evolution of the group that was in control of the leadership of Merseyside Militant Labour. With the defeat of the strike their shift towards the right not only resumed but became, if anything, more pronounced. By 1999 this would lead to this group placing itself outside the ranks of our party. The division between them and the overwhelming majority of the party was on a whole number of issues, from organisation to political perspectives. However, the central differences, as is invariably the case when divisions take place in the Marxist movement, were around politics. Dave Cotterill and Michael Morris, who were later to fall out with one another, by their own admission, produced a political ‘critique’ of the central ideas of Militant Labour. Unbelievably, they admitted: “There is little in this document which defines precisely where comrades on Merseyside stand on many of the issues which we are critical about in relation to the Socialist Party.”3

We replied to this astonishing admission: “What would be said about a worker who discards his tools, without first acquiring new ones, and then proceeds to carry on working with his bare hands? He would be seen as a very inadequate worker. This, we are afraid, is how the ex-members of the Socialist Party on Merseyside will now be viewed, by those looking for an answer to the serious problems confronting the workers’ movement worldwide.”4 We nevertheless traced out the political roots of this ‘critique’ in order to defend the stand of Militant Labour and the CWI during the whole period of the 1990s.

One of the central questions which were discussed then and since was over the role of information technology, how this related to the economic prospects of capitalism and did this signify a new structural growth of capitalism? Critics of the CWI included former member Paul Storey, who had been a leading member, in exile, of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency, the CWI’s South African section. On returning to South Africa in the early 1990s he dropped out of the CWI and politics altogether. Dave Cotterill clearly shared these ideas, as we will see. But he had a common position with Storey in another sense. Both rationalised their abandonment of Marxism and the labour movement with an acceptance of a new economic paradigm, a long-term growth of capitalism. However, they did not just seek to leave the ranks of our party and International but consciously sought to undermine them as their excuse for leaving our ranks.  We therefore took the opportunity in a quite lengthy pamphlet, New Technology and Globalisation: Can a Capitalist Slump be Avoided? to explain some of our views on a whole series of issues since the collapse of Stalinism. We recognised how, like the labour movement as a whole, we and Marxism in general had been pushed back. This was the starting point for the political retreat of the comrades around Cotterill. He claimed that his document was a ‘collective’ criticism of the Socialist Party. It wasn’t! “In reality, it is written by Dave Cotterill, former regional secretary of the Socialist Party on Merseyside… The leading trade unionists in Unison [including Roger Bannister], long-standing members of the party such as Tony Aitman, who was in our ranks long before Dave Cotterill or his supporters, Tony Mulhearn who played a decisive role together with Peter Taaffe and other British EC members in the Liverpool Council battles of the 1980s, Paul Astbury, Deputy Leader of the Labour Group after Derek Hatton’s expulsion from the Labour Party, Harry Smith and many other veterans of the struggle as well as the best of the new generation, remain with the Socialist Party.”5 Moreover, we pointed out that neither Cotterill nor the others were suspended or expelled but “left when the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party asked questions about his involvement in a project on Merseyside (in effect a non-governmental organisation which arose out of the dockers’ strike, which he was involved in as a paid official of the Socialist Party).”6

In the discussion that followed a series of organisational differences, which are mostly of historical interest today, were raised. However, as they were parting from our ranks, they naturally criticised the ‘regime’ of the Socialist Party which, until shortly before their document, they had defended. We pointed out: “The Merseyside socialists are a right-wing, opportunist split from the Socialist Party. Nevertheless, they were given full rights to explain their position verbally but, despite our urgings, they did not produce any substantial alternative verbal or written analysis to that of the CWI or the party leadership. Why did they wait until three weeks before the National Conference of the Socialist Party –and after Dave Cotterill had left the Socialist Party – to set their ideas down on paper?”7

We had answered the charge of lack of democracy within the party many times in the past, but we repeated this in relation to the new charges: “It is ludicrous for our critics, amongst whom now must be included the ex-comrades of the Socialist Party on Merseyside, to claim that debate and discussion is not the norm within our organisation. On the issues of Scotland, on France, let alone the name-change debate, we have seen an almost endless production of documents for internal discussion and debate.” Moreover: “There is not a single case of any member of the party or the CWI being prohibited from putting forward a written criticism of the leadership of the party. Other organisations with access to our internal material have complained that they could not keep up with the volume of written material produced by the Socialist Party on the name debate and on Scotland.”8

Trotsky summed up the type of opposition signified by these comrades: “Do you want to know the organisational programme of the opposition? It consists of a mad hunt for the fourth dimension of party democracy. In practice this means burying politics beneath discussion; and burying centralism beneath the anarchy of the intellectual circles.”9 In reality, these organisational criticisms were merely a sideshow. We were compelled to show to our ranks and the wider layer of workers and youth interested in us just how dishonest were the ‘Merseyside ex-comrades’, a sectarian fragment combining gross theoretical, opportunist blunders with ultra-left positions on issues such as the unions. On economic policy, they condemned the Socialist Party leadership as “primitive slumpists”. This is a phrase that they had borrowed from the political arsenal of Militant in describing those Trotskyists, like the late Gerry Healy of the WRP, who prophesied during the boom period of 1950-75, that a slump was immediately on the agenda, alongside its corollary ‘fascism’. Such a one-sided, crude position discredited organisations like this that were a caricature of genuine Marxism.

We never adopted such an approach and had fallen out with Ted Grant and Alan Woods on this issue back in 1987. In The Rise of Militant we wrote: “What did the October [1987] share crash signify? The answer to this question was hotly disputed within the ranks of Militant. On the very day of the collapse Ted Grant argued that this was a precursor to a new 1929-type slump. His thinking was unfortunately reflected in the pages of Militant. In its initial comments on these developments it stated: ‘A major slump in production and trade is assured, perhaps even before the summer of 1988.’ Michael Roberts, who shared his view, stated that the October crash ‘is a barometer predicting the impending storm that will exceed anything experienced by capitalism in the post-war period, possibly matching the great slump of the 1930s’.”10

However, our ex-Merseyside comrades were making the opposite – just as serious – error on the economic perspectives for capitalism in the late 1990s. They quoted Paul Storey approvingly: “The [Militant] tendency has probably made an incorrect basic appraisal of the period since 1974, relying too much on assumptions which have not been retested.” Storey, when he was leaving the CWI, stated in a parting shot: “I believe, we have passed into the early stages of a new epoch in the development of the productive forces (from ‘machinofacture’ to ‘computerfacture’ for want of a better term)… we are bound to make endless mistakes unless we begin the analysis of all fundamental questions from that point.”

He wanted the CWI to “pose the question of a decisive technological revolution occurring at the base of society, examine its implications and try to confirm it by careful empirical proof ”.11

Clearly, Storey and following him the Merseyside ex-comrades, subscribed to the idea that ‘computer facture’, married to globalisation – in effect, a decisive technological revolution – had ushered in a new, sustained period of growth for capitalism. The answer of the CWI was not to ignore the development of new technology, computers or globalisation but to soberly analyse its effects on the economy and the economic perspectives for capitalism. We pointed out that this was not a new issue: “In the 1930s, for example, many new inventions – plastics, rubber, etc. – already existed. However, they could not be fully implemented because of general stagnation in the productive forces. This only became possible as a result of the post-1945 world boom. This boom arose because of the massive demand created in the US by the onset of the war, particularly in industries which could utilise the new technologies. The destruction in Europe – the slaughter of value both of constant capital (factories, machinery) and variable capital (workers) – also cleared the ground for new productive methods and a structural upswing of capitalism.”

The fundamental argument of the Socialist Party and the CWI was that new technology was an important development with particular effects in some fields. It had a decisive effect in the information technology and financial sectors, as well as in parts of industry. However, the effects of the ‘technological revolution’ had been misunderstood by Storey and his latter-day converts. “As opposed to the 1950-75 boom, its application had been intensive and not extensive. It had also been accompanied by cuts in the workforce, slashing of wages, etc., and the transfer of resources to a handful of countries in the underdeveloped world. Rather than avoiding crisis it has enormously aggravated it in Asia and elsewhere. The economic story of the 1990s is the limited application of technology in most industries.”12

The Merseyside ex-comrades accused us of denying globalisation as a “concept, except in regard to financial transactions”. However, we wrote: “We never denied globalisation, in the sense of an extension and development of the world division of labour, nor did we ever say that the ‘Asian Tigers’ were ‘not important’. What we fought against were the exaggerations of those, like Paul Storey and now Dave Cotterill, of the effects of globalisation and new technology. We rejected completely that this was facilitating a ‘higher stage of capitalism’, of growth and stability. Globalisation, which first began to develop in the 1970s, did represent a new phase in the evolution of capitalism.”

The first phase of capitalist globalisation, historically speaking, took place in the 19th century and was anticipated and described by Marx and Engels in works such as the Communist Manifesto. The post-Second World War boom of 1950-75 also witnessed an  enormous extension and integration of the productive forces – science, technique and the organisation of labour – through the lowering of tariff barriers worldwide. However, this was taken to a new level following the collapse of Stalinism and the bourgeois ideological triumphalism that flowed from this, which had a material effect in weakening the labour movement, including the unions. This in turn reinforced neoliberalism by providing a plentiful supply of new, mostly cheap, labour and a massive development of globalisation. The opposite process, a trend towards ‘de-globalisation’, is evident today (2017) as a delayed reaction to the 2007-08 crisis, with the collapse of world trade.

We explained: “But this did not indicate the opening up of a boom period for capitalism. On the contrary, the economic crisis of 1974-75 signified a new period of ‘depression’. The 1990s, seen as the ‘end of history’ by the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the decade, have already experienced one recession and are on the eve of another, or possibly a sluMP. We also showed that the Asian Tigers developed for special historical and economic reasons and did not represent the future of the countries of the underdeveloped world.”13

Rather than showing a way out for capitalism it was precisely in those industries where new technology had been applied widely that the most devastating effects of the slump which gripped East Asia were being felt. Huge surpluses existed in the vehicle and computer chip industries, together with a classical glut, the colossal overproduction of goods. In every respect the perspectives of Storey and his belated supporters proved to be erroneous. We challenged our critics to explain why this ‘revolution’ in new technology and globalisation had “not led to a spectacular increase in the overall growth of the productivity of labour? Both Paul Storey and Dave Cotterill are completely silent when we point to the fact that the growth in the productivity of labour, in Britain and on a world scale, is lower in the 1990s – a period when they would argue that there has been a massive application of new technology to industry. The average growth in productivity is less than it was in the 1980s, which in turn is spectacularly less than it was during the structural upswing of world capitalism between 1950 and 1975.”

Furthermore: “This was mainly because there was not the same ploughing back of the surplus extracted from the labour of the working class by the capitalists in investment in machinery and means of production as took place during the 1950-75 upswing. This technology was applied to a few industries with important results. As far as information technology and finance capital are concerned, the growth has been substantial… Moreover, the application of new technology to the 500 largest multinational corporations had seen a sevenfold growth in their sales, yet the worldwide employment of these global firms has [according to Greider] ‘remained virtually flat since the early 1970s, hovering around 26 million people’.”14

It was true that, in the 1990s, the profits of the major monopolies in the advanced industrial countries grew significantly and in some countries approached the levels of the 1960s. This has mainly resulted not from the huge investment occasioned by new technology but by the application of neoliberal policies: increased exploitation of the working class through deregulation, privatisation, part-time working, two or three jobs, worsening of working conditions and relocation of production. Moreover, while the rate of profit had increased, the price ratio yields and dividends of shares had been very low, particularly in the US. In the 1990s shareholders’ wealth came from capital gains not dividends.

Our critics tried to attack us on long-term perspectives for capitalism and especially the description of the depressionary tendencies in capitalism as far back as 1974. They said: “The Great Depression of 1873 to 1895-96 led in fact to a growth in anti-capitalist and socialist consciousness, and it led to the growth of US and German capitalism based on expanding markets and technological advance.” They reinforced this point by arguing: “The ‘depressionary’ analysis, which really tells us very little, is taken as a sort of article of faith. It ignores the historical experience about the Great Depression at the end of the 19th century, a time of imperialist expansion, the building of trade unions, and socialist parties.”  We answered: “The ‘Great Depression’ of 1870-1895 was termed a ‘depression’ because of a long-term fall in prices which, together with increased competition, cut the profits of the capitalists, especially in older capitalist countries like Britain, France and Belgium. But it was, at the same time, a period of extensive growth of world capitalism, especially in the USA and Germany, both of whom used trade protection to shelter home industries. Falling prices, while squeezing profits, raised real wages. So in many countries there was a real strengthening of the working class with offensives on wages, hours, etc.”15

The situation of world capitalism throughout the 19th century, right up to 1914, in general followed an upward curve. As Trotsky pointed out the crises were relatively minor disturbances which did not halt this upward movement of capitalism. The partial exception was the ‘depression’ of the 1880s and early 1890s. There were a number of factors which led to this but the US offered an escape route for stagnating European capitalism and its millions of unemployed. This depression led to the ‘boom’ of 1896 to 1914.

The clear implication of their argument was that capitalism had found a new way out through new technology. These arguments were put forward just a matter of years before capitalism was to experience its most devastating crisis in history! They tried to see contradictions in our position: “Look, they say, the Socialist Party refers to a depressionary period dating from 1974-75 and, at the same time, their document speaks of a certain growth, or boom, or even a ‘cyclical growth’. For Marxists there are ‘cycles’ and ‘cycles’. The cycle in one period is entirely different in its strength, as a measure of the health of capitalism, than it is in another. In a sense it is like the heartbeat of a human being. In the full bloom of youth capitalism’s heartbeat was strong, the ‘booms’ were greater than the occasional interruptions in production in the form of ‘crises’. But the period which followed the First World War and the Russian revolution was characterised by a much more weakened ‘heartbeat’ of capitalism. The cycles were shorter, the crises were more often and deeper than the small ephemeral growth in production.

“A period of ‘depression’ does not eliminate the cycle of growth and crisis. But a depression is marked by a general stagnation, a very feeble growth in productivity and the productive forces. Notwithstanding any ‘booms’, there is no structural growth, nor broad social and political stability. In the booms of the late 1970s, of the late 1980s and 1990s, the situation that has marked out capitalism since 1974-75, even in its citadels of the US and of Europe, is the stubborn existence of mass unemployment (which has lasted in the US right up until the recent period) and now beginning to affect Japan.”16

Although Dave Cotterill and others who supported him played an important role in the dockers’ strike, their advice at each stage was suspect, to say the least. As we mentioned earlier, the tendency of ultra-left groups to ignore the official structures in the trade unions was an ever-present theme of the Merseyside comrades during the docks dispute. In criticising them, we stated: “Prompted by Dave Cotterill, the Merseyside organisation, which only infrequently discussed at aggregate meetings the progress of the dispute, opposed the call for the TGWU to make the strike official. This was challenged by Roger Bannister who wrote: ‘The whole discussion about the role of the TGWU bureaucracy brings into question our attitude to the trade union officialdom, how we criticise them to the rank and file and what demands we seek to have the rank and file put upon them… If no demands are placed upon them, they are off the hook and the impression is given that the leadership is irrelevant to the outcome of the struggle. It is in this light that the demand to make the dispute official has to be viewed, rather than as opening up a second front.’”17

If we had adopted Cotterill’s position, we would have isolated ourselves in the manner of the sectarian SWP. Instead, we have not only built up a powerful position within the unions but also fought off witch-hunts, above all in Unison with the successful five-year struggle of our comrades – Glenn Kelly, Onay Kasab, Suzanne Muna and Brian Debus – who defeated the Unison leadership. We concluded: “The document of our ex-members represents a break with  the ideas that built a powerful Trotskyist force on Merseyside. The purpose of their document is to supply ammunition to all the opponents of Militant, in the past, and now of the Socialist Party. No matter; we will continue along the path that we have charted out.”18

We defended the idea of the necessity for a party, a mass party of the working class. However, we had to swim against the stream. Many of the new generation at times adopted an ‘anti-party’ position. This was a reaction to bureaucratic, top-down organisation of both the Stalinist and right-wing social democratic types. Even as recently as 2016, around the discussion in the Corbyn movement, we issued a timely reminder of the need for a party with a politically far-sighted leadership as the forceps which allow a revolution to be ‘born’: “Without the Bolshevik party – and the worker cadres assembled in its ranks who were steeled in the battle against the landlord-capitalist tsarist regime – there would not have been a successful Russian revolution. This idea is refuted today by the theoreticians of ‘spontaneity’, among whom Paul Mason is counted: ‘You can do more with a mobile phone than a party.’ This against the most ruthless ruling class in history that has concentrated unparalleled economic and state power in its hands!

“Other genuine and sincere young people in the anti-capitalist, anti-austerity movement, repelled by bureaucratic parties and their leaders, also reject political parties and naively believe that ‘self-organisation’ is all that is required. But the leaders of some of the new radical formations, like Podemos in Spain, while appearing to reject ‘top-down’ leadership and bureaucratism, in fact embrace a similar approach. Organised in a loose, virtual ‘federation’, real power is concentrated in the hands of the Podemos leadership with little or no opportunity on the part of others in the ranks collectively to formulate, and organise if necessary, alternatives to the leadership.

“The method of organisation of Podemos superficially puts power into the hands of the ‘membership’ but in reality concentrates it in an elitist fashion in the hands of the general secretary, Pablo Iglesias, and the Citizens Council. This body has 81 members, consisting of the general secretary and regional secretaries, plus 62 members directly elected by a Citizens Assembly – not in a face-to-face delegate meeting but only online. Superficially, this appears to be super-democratic, but it allows the leadership to pull the strings without the challenge of face-to-face meetings.

“When the Indignados movement developed in Spain in 2011 – and was emulated in the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens and other squares in Greece – [some] attempted to systematise spontaneity as an ‘alternative’ outside the ‘traditional’ method of organising through delegates, democratic discussion and the right of recall…

“It remains a fact that the traditional method of organisation deployed by the Bolsheviks, and emulated by the Marxist movement ever since, is the only one through which a successful socialist revolution, led by the working class, has been carried out. The highest form of this was reflected in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils (the soviets) – later emulated by the peasantry – in which ‘direct democracy’ was exemplified.

“The Bolsheviks reflected the need for control from below. They implemented the election of all officials, the right of recall, and no official to receive more than the average skilled worker’s wage. In this way, careerists and opportunists were excluded and only the most devoted and self-sacrificing workers were included in their ranks.”19