Monday, 21 April 2008

Left Regroupment Issues and Prospects

frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

The left in Britain has been better at coming apart than coming together in the last year. Gregor Gall examines the prospects for left regroupment and looks to Europe to see if there are lessons to learn.

The radical left unity projects in Scotland (the SSP) and England (Respect) made small but significant electoral breakthroughs between 2003 and 2005. Both recognised the importance for the radical left of contesting neo-liberalism in a meaningful way in the electoral arena where most of what passes for ‘politics’ goes on. Of course, this was not their only focus – indeed, the basis of making some electoral advance was predicated on strength in communities, campaigns and workplaces and high public recognition and visibility. After the implosion, the fratricide and the traumatic times, the vital issue of radical left regroupment is beginning to re-emerge in new and different ways in both Scotland and England. Both processes are taking place within the overall context of the objective conditions of hegemonic neo-liberalism, continuing imperialism and the decomposition of social democracy demanding that the idea of a radical left unity projects is not jettisoned for reasons of any short-term difficulties.

A Wider Regroupment

For the radical left in Scotland and England, the issue of regroupment is not just about discussing whether there is any basis for the organisational re-unification the SSP and Solidarity or Respect Renewal and Respect (the SWP version) albeit, there is in my view, a role for these discussions in terms of individuals from both organisations being able to work with each other inside new, future left unity projects (see my Sunday Herald article, 4 November 2007). With the key outward looking change in the orientation of the Labour left and its Communist Party of Britain outriders (through the Labour Representation Committee), the development of a radical left critique amongst environmentalists (linking the crisis of the environment with capitalism), the continued prevalence of activists within community and anti-poverty groups and the existence of thousands of former radical left activists and the many that might become radical left activists, there is now the prospect of a much wider left regroupment than has hitherto been the case. For example, Respect Renewal may be able to form an alliance with the RMT union for the Greater London Assembly elections in May this year and the left in Scotland needs to consider having a single candidate for the 2009 European elections because of the nature of the electoral arithmetic and constituency involved. So this kind of regroupment is not about uniting the far left as the SSP and Socialist Alliance attempted to do. It is a stage moved on from this, recognising the weakness of what these projects attempted to do in a situation where the left is now collectively weaker and needs to desperately expand out of its historical ghettos.

So when regroupment is being discussed, it is important to understand it can take three basic forms. First, genuine working together and cooperation with different stands of left opinion and currents of left thought in broad-based campaigns on poverty, racism, peace, environment and women’s rights (whatever their origin) and organisations (like unions, tenants’ groups), where there is more than just token involvement or support from different left organisations and groups. Rather, priority should be given to having properly organised and resourced participation in these campaigns, where members of different left organisations work to further the interests of the campaign in non-factional ways. For instance, more non-Labour Party affiliated unions now have political funds for campaigning with and are looking for allies to do this with. Obvious cases are the RMT, FBU and now PCS and possibly the NUT. The premise is that stronger campaigns and class organisations will provide a more fertile basis for the left to operate in. In particular, those non-aligned or independent-minded activists would be more receptive to the arguments of the radical left where these groups operated in constructive ways. (And, moreover, this form of radical left unity should be seen as being pre-figurative for the two higher forms of unity.)

Second, electoral alliances in the plethora of representative bodies that now exist (and of which some are subject to proportional representation) like parliaments/assemblies and local councils as well as in other organisations like unions. Again, this form could be seen to be pre-figurative of subsequent full(er) fusion. Whilst the majority of citizens are not be aware of what takes place within campaigns and class organisations, they are aware, to a greater degree, of what goes on within the electoral arena. Presenting a united left face and position is vital to make a credible pitch for the allegiance and support of the ‘ordinary’ citizens – those who are not active or that ‘political’. When the prize of elected representation (that allows a platform for the radical left to speak to the mass of citizens) is at stake, minor differences must be put in perspective in order to allow the broad critique and demands to be put across. Finally, where there is a prospect of gaining some elected officials, discussions need to sort out the distribution of these across the participants involved and the means for holding elected members accountable.

Third, there is the organisational fusion of new and existing forces and groups. The basis of collective working together in the party organisations must be that of overwhelming consensus on the grand political questions of our age, whereby this forms the bedrock of a common ideology for radical left unity, from which questions of how to operate are secondary and subject to fraternal discussion and debate. This has often been described as the ‘80:20 equation’, where the 20% of disagreement is not allowed to get in the way of agreement and action on the 80% of issues where there is common ground and consensus. Consequently, to facilitate agreement (the 80%) and fraternal discussion (on the 20%), radical left projects must be characterised by pluralism, openness and relative broadness, with some degree of interim internal autonomy to the pre-merger constituent parts.

Unity should not be made a fetish of for its own sake. Unity that is poorly conceived and constructed will not last or be effective. Disagreements must be allowed to be aired and debated but it behoves those on the radical left to engage with each in ways that makes dialogue and cooperation possible for the historical reason that as the radical left has invariably been weaker than the forces it opposes (of the right, centre, neo-liberalism and capitalism), a premium is put on unity of its small forces. Therefore, to be a credible option for a growing body of disillusioned and progressive opinion, unity and cooperation amongst itself are vital. Uniting the radical left together is not just about making one new alliance or organisation the sum of its constituent parts so that it is not divided, important though that is. Rather, it is about making the new organisation more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, unity can help prefigure growth of members and influence through pooling resources, pushing in the same direction, working to common priorities and being more credible to wider social movements and the like.

The wider context of radical left unity projects in Europe is that the social justice movement (with its important anti-capitalism or anti-capitalist globalisation components) that emanated from the ‘Battle of Seattle’ of 1999 and immediately before is no longer the movement it once was. It no longer has the form or focus of before, with some of that being the product of it engaging in what could be described as ‘political tourism’ – the endless round of demonstrations and social forums. Something similar can be said about the current state of the anti-war/anti-imperialism movement. To me this re-emphasises the importance of the party as agency, particularly in the need to help create, organise and coordinate resistance on the much broader and therefore more difficult terrain of fighting neo-liberalism in workplaces and communities.

A Party for Socialists

Clearly, the tenor of what I’m arguing is that socialists working with other socialists and the wider radical left still need to be organised in a party because of the requirement of an organisational form to pursue their politics with, and this is broadly conceived of in terms of the way the SSP has operated in the past as a party rather than network or alliance within which pluralism operates. This means that the party has a need to promote itself, recruit, organise interventions and have its own newspaper and publication but do so in a way where promoting the party does not mean that this has to be done in a direct way. What I mean here is that members can win respect and admiration for and from the campaigning work they do and this is as good a recruiting and mobolising tool as any. Any political party is a vanguard party in the sense that it is the organised expression of a set of ideas and policies that the majority of people in a society do not hold. The job of the political party is then to lead and reflect, and balance the tension the two in its attempt to gain ground for its ideas. Consequently, in discussions we should be mindful of conflating ‘vanguardism’ per se with the self-style practice of far left parties of the Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist nature.

The basic approach of a party operation has taken on a more important meaning not just in the light of discussion about left regroupment but because there is a detectable trend of opinion within the SSP at the moment that is heading in the direction of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ because of the demoralisation and reduced involvement of members that is evident. In the discussion of ‘what next for the SSP?’ after the split of 2006 and the electoral wipe out of 2007, and cohering around the debate on party structures in the form of the party commission, some are advocating a much looser structure of networks, no newspaper, no leadership role for the national executive, de-prioritising branches and the like. The conclusion to this drift would be to see the fragmentation and demobilisation of a previously (relatively) coherent organisation.

On the other hand, the direct implication of what I’ve argued above is that there is no contemporary role for a far left type of internal party regime based on leadership domination through democratic centralism, intolerance of dissent, sectarianism – the stressing of differences over agreements with others - and extremely high levels of cadre activity.

So, who then is the unity and regroupment to be amongst? In the instance of common working together, all on the left, aligned and not, should be included. In the instance of the electoral alliances, all left forces who take the electoral arena seriously should be included – thus, the CWI and SWP, for to not include them (and given their current electoral orientations) would be self-defeating for a united left electoral alliances. However, we it comes to the third type of unity and regroupment, the likes of the CWI and SWP do not figure in my thinking because they have their own specific party building projects which are either incompatible in practice with broader radical left parties or these organisations become an unnecessary weight – a diversion, irritant etc – to building and advancing these broader parties. The reason for this exclusion is also attributable to the democratic centralist nature of organisations where the centralism dominates over the democratic and which fundamentally cannot deal with dissent and difference within their own ranks. Organisations of this kind – particularly where they have sufficient numbers to carry this out – show that they do not have the same aims and objectives as the broad party of the radical left. The salient point here is not really that the aims and objectives are different but that they are too different and lacking in commonality and being complimentary enough. This is most keenly seen in how the members of these organisations view how the issues of reform and revolution relate to each other, where the traditional far left raises maximum demands in an ‘impossible-ist’ manner. That said it is interesting to note that in two of the most successful left unity projects in Europe – Germany and Greece - far left organisations like these have been allowed to participate. Maybe this is more to do with a function of their very small size in these countries.

What I want to do in the remainder of this article is look in some detail at three successful left unity projects (Germany, Greece and Portugal). Before moving to do that, and following my survey of radical left unity projects in thirteen continental Europe countries (see Scottish Left Review, January-February 2008 issue (, it is clear that not all radical and far left groups and parties are involved in these projects. Indeed, the communist parties with sizeable numbers of elected representatives still exist in Portugal, France, Italy, Greece outside radical left unity projects and here both radical left unity projects and sizeable communist parties exist alongside a plethora of other assorted leftists groups.


The important development of Die Linke, fusing together the former PDS, a breakaway section from the social democrats (SPD) and various far left groups is a very important development. It is amply analysed elsewhere (Victor Grossman, Scottish Left Review, January-February 2008 (, Christophe Spehr, Red Pepper August/September 2007, and Christoph Jünke, ‘A New Formation with Potential Pitfalls: The New German Linkspartei’, the Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, 15/3, 2007). Suffice it to note it has been borne out of a severe crisis of the left and social democracy in a context of rising struggles against neo-liberalism, the active role of public figures like former SPD finance minister ‘red’ Oskar Lafontaine has been significant, and it has the support of sections of two major unions – the engineering union IG Metal and the public sector union ver.di – and has approaching 90,000 members. The party two over two years to form and this process has had its severe ups and downs. In 2005, its predecessor gained 8.7% in federal parliament with 54 seats and it has had recent successes in gaining members in the Bremen (8.4%, 7 MPs), Hesse (5.1%, 6 MPs), Lower Saxony (7.1%, 11 MPs) and Hamburg (6.4%, 8 MPs) state parliaments and forcing the Social Democrats to the left in policy and actions (and without losing sufficient votes to prevent Die Linke gaining elected members).


The Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology is commonly known as Synaspismos or SYN. Until 2003, it was called the Coalition of the Left and Progress and is overwhelmingly the major component of the parliamentary Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). According to one observer (Yiannis Kokosalakis, Emancipation and Liberation, No. 15, Autumn 2007), the politics of SYRIZA are pretty much the politics of SYN.
SYN emerged initially as an electoral coalition in the late 1980s, with two communist parties (both which had either left or been expelled from the original communist party, the KKE) being its largest constituents, and securing over 10% of the vote in parliamentary elections and a substantial number of MPs. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coalition moved to become a party in 1991. Electoral fortunes were mixed in the early to mid-1990s but parliamentary representation was secured (10 MPs in 1996 on 5% vote, 2 MEPs in 1999 on 5% vote). In elections in 2000, SYN was supported by left ecologists, gaining just over 3% of the vote and 6 MPs. In parliamentary elections of 2004, SYN together with several smaller left and left ecologists parties formed SYRIZA alliance, gaining 3.4% of the vote. SYRIZA comprises ten organisations which include various far left groups but critically a large breakaway from PASOK, the social democratic-cum-Labour party.

The alliance with the smaller parties was formed again at the end of 2005, providing a firm basis the 14 MPs gained on a 5% vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, which makes SYN the fourth biggest party. It is important to recognise that Greece uses proportional representation election systems, and that meanwhile the Greek Communist Party (KKE), with some 10,000 members, gained 8.1% giving them 22 MPs. According to Yiannis Kokosalakis (Emancipation and Liberation, No. 15, Autumn 2007), the KKE has refused to cooperate with the wider left, i.e. SYN and SYRIZA.

In addition to its MPs, SYN also has many councillors, being the third biggest party in local government, and a sizable, semi-autonomous youth wing. SYN aspires to be an ‘umbrella’, where people of varying left ideological and theoretical backgrounds can find a natural home. Therefore, SYN members are encouraged to form and participate in internal platforms which mount open discussions and publish magazines, but may not work against party policy. These platforms are invited to put forward theses on party policy and strategy at triennial congresses.

SYRIZA’s genesis arose in a forum of the radical left in 2001 called the Space of Left Dialogue and Common Action, which in turn led to an electoral alliance for the 2002 local elections, and provided the basis for its formal establishment in 2004. However after the 2004 election, the smaller parties accused SYN of not honouring an agreement to have one of its MPs resign so a member of one of the smaller parties could take the seat. This crisis led SYN to run independently from the rest of the Coalition for the 2004 European elections but later in that year SYN returned to SYRIZA. By 2007, several new radical left and green organisations joined SYRIZA, helping it secure its breakthrough. Again, according to Yiannis Kokosalakis (Emancipation and Liberation, No. 15, Autumn 2007), SYN has made the error of downplaying socialist and class struggle politics given that the KKE has shown there is a large opening for this type of politics. This compares to a much healthier assessment of SYN from its one of its (Trotskyist) officer bearers (see Socialist Resistance, No. 48, October 2007).


Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, LB) was founded in 1999 from a number of far left parties from Maoist, Trotskyist and communist backgrounds. All of these parties had stood in elections and became currents within the LB. Initially developed as a coalition, the LB has since become a party while its constituent components have maintained their existence and some levels of autonomy, leading to a loose structure. This structure may also provide an umbrella for other interested socialist organizations. In 1999, the LB polled 2% in the Portuguese parliamentary election with this rising to 3% in 2002. These results were generally better than the collective results of its predecessor components. In 2005, the LB achieved a breakthrough with 6.5% and 8 MPs. It also has 1 MEP and many local councillors, making it Portugal’s fifth biggest party. The LB’s presidential candidate in 2006 received 288,224 votes (5%). With support from students and unions in particular, the LB is becoming to be seen as a credible left alternative to the older, more established communist party and the more centre-left socialist party because it has become a pole of attraction for many involved in various social movements. The BL proposed Portugal’s first law on domestic violence, which was passed in parliament with the support of the socialist party.

Portugal is unusual in that it has another radical left unity project, the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (UDC), consisting of the Communist Party, the Ecologist Party and Democratic Intervention. The coalition was formed in 1987 to run in the simultaneous national and European parliamentary elections, and in every election since these parties have stood together at the UDC, even though the Communist Party is the major element within it. Tensions are minimalised by the sharing out of lead candidatures. Since 1987 the UDC has had in: the national parliament between 12 and 31 MPs (8% to 12% vote); local government in excess of 200 councillors (11% to 13% vote); and the European parliament 2 to 4 MEPs (9% to 14% vote).


What can we learn from these three successful instances? The most obvious points are that facilitating the moving away of sections of people from the social democratic parties is critical as is winning significant union support. This may then lead new and existing non-aligned people to look at the projects as being credible and worthwhile. When they join and become involved, these project achieve some kind of critical mass and lift off as they cease to be amalgams of what their constituent parts were (like the SSP achieved between 1999-2003 in a small way). Nonetheless, other than in Greece, there has been a lack of engagement with green/ecologist parties, organisations and milieus. What may be different is that in all three countries, large communist parties existed providing a more ingrained left culture.

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire and author of The Political Economy of Scotland – Red Scotland? Radical Scotland (University of Wales Press, 2005). He lives in Edinburgh.


Himself said...

This is an extraordinarily not-timely post - being as it comes in the wake of the most spectacular collapse of a left electoral bloc, viz. Italian Communism, ever seen, and simply doesn't address it. Refoundation has long been both the best and the worst example for left regroupment in the West - much larger and more electorally successful than any other, while also being horrifically compromised. The lessons here are extremely important to study, but everyone is falling over themselves to ignore it. The article also ignores France, where the far left is more electorally viable, and the PCF has collapsed similarly, though more gradually and now decisively.

Red Wombat said...

I agree that Gregor's article is fairly light on examples.

He appears to be focussing on the "success" stories rather than the failures (and it could be argued that the failure of Refoundation was already clear before the elections).

The questions then should be "why are some successful, and others not?", and "what will it take to keep the successful ones going?"

That is, are there any distinctive features thta separate off say, the Left Block or Die Linke, from the likes of Refoundation, Respect or the SSP.

It should also be noted that the article ignores other successes, such as in the Netherlands, as well, as, of course, France.

It was posted here because the wombats regard to as still being timely (perhaps especially so after Italy), and a useful contributuion to the field, but also incomplete in its analysis and coverage.

The question of broad left strategies, and the conditions under which they work, is one that we are still collectively working out, and one which we need to collectively get a better grip on.

Himself said...

Die Linke are too young a party for lessons to be learned from them - to learn anything from that experience one must simply participate. The error of studying the instant success of new formation led a number of failed attempts to ape the now ultimately abortive SSP.

The Dutch Socialists/Tomatoes are worthy of some study, however, due to longevity. But really, we need to ask how to win, not how to become a stable bunch of tomato-throwers. Despite the incredible difference in material conditions, I would therefore urge comrades to forget about all these loser parties and study Prachanda.

Himself said...

Oh, and maybe also AKEL. These two have had unprecedented reakthroughs in the last year - communists winning bourgeois elections!