The following article is one in a series of personal viewpoints offered by members and supporters of the Independent Socialist Network, assessing the new situation brought about by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. As is to be expected given the fast pace of developments, the views of any given author may have developed since these pieces were written; and none of them necessarily represent the collective view of the ISN. The collected series can be found on its own page.
In the ISN debate about the implications of the Jeremy Corbyn victory the notion of the “Marxist Party” has come to the fore. It is not the first time the concept has been alluded to in the ISN but there is much more about it. But what does it really mean? What do people mean by it and, perhaps more importantly, what does a wider group of people think it is supposed to mean? I will try and deconstruct.
A good place to start is with Marx himself. What kind of party does he envisage? “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” is in itself a paradox because in it we find the famous proposition that “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” So what is this aforesaid Communist Party?
The answer I think lies in an optimistic view of Marx and Engels that in the workers parties the views of communists will prevail so that the broader workers party will become a Communist Party by virtue of the reason and strength of the position laid out in the Manifesto, and in particular the passage that immediately follow those above:
“The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties (but he just said they do not form a separate party – DL) by this only
- In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
- In the various stages of development……..they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole”.
So a bit messy and tangled. And history has been unkind to the optimism of Marx and Engels.
So what then was the practice? Marx was instrumental in the formation of the First International. Does that mean that the International and its sections were Marxist parties? Perhaps, but that is not crystal clear either. The First International was the site of furious polemics by Marx, Engels and others on the one hand, and people and tendencies opposed to Marx. Marx tended to carry the day but the other tendencies within the International did not go along the Marxist positions and eventually it tore itself apart.
Then came the Second International. In its early days nearly all its members claimed to be Marxists. Was this and its sections, Marxist Parties? No. The trend went more and more towards various forms of reformism. Then with the 1st World War came the worst kind of national chauvinism and opportunism with the national sections of the 2nd International exhorting workers to go out to the battle fields and kill each other. This is about as far away from Marxism as you can get.
With Lenin came a new model for the party – the model adopted by the Bolsheviks and later the 3rd International as a whole – the model of Democratic Centralism and vanguard party. There were other models around in the 3rd International associated with Rosa Luxemburg. But if you look for the idea of a Marxist Party in the popular consciousness (well not so popular, but wider than us) you will find that the Democratic Centralist picture of a Communist Party is what people expect.
Is this what comrade Nick Wrack is proposing? I am fairly confident that this is not what Nick has in mind. On the contrary, I have heard Nick criticising this model. So first off, whatever notion Nick has in mind we would be best off not calling it “a Marxist Party”.
Another reason to call it something else is to get away from a cult of Marx and in particular searching for a quote from Marx to give your position a kind of divinity to win an argument. I quote him sometimes when I think he’s very pithy and pertinent. However, I don’t claim its right just because Marx said it.
So what is this notion, whatever we decide to call it?