Reformism has not collapsed
As far as I know, the catchphrase "Build the revolutionary party!" or "Build the party!" was first used as a regular slogan, directed at the general public, by French Trotskyists in the mid-1940s.
Similar phrases will have been used by Marxists before then, as exhortations to their own activists or sympathisers, or as occasional rhetoric; but that was, I think, the first time the slogan "build the party" was offered to the public at large as instruction on what they should do to better their lot.
In the 1970s the catchphrase was revived by Gerry Healy's Workers' Revolutionary Party (now defunct, but until 1975 the biggest group on the activist left) and then by the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP have continued to use it, with variants such as "Build the socialist alternative", until recently.
Today, "build the party" agitation is being revived, as "build a new workers' party", or "campaign for a workers' party". In a strange twist, these slogans are pushed mostly not by the organisations which do work to "build a party" - as the AWL, the SWP, and so on, do, in different ways because we have different ideas of the politics needed - but by activists who once were members of "party-building" organisations, but quit for various reasons, and now operate through looser or ad hoc groupings. The non-party-builders tell the party-builders that we should should "build the party"!
What party? At least it was clear what the WRP and SWP meant: "Join our organisation". The problem was that the slogan covered up absence or poverty of wider political perspectives. But now what?
A broad party! The Scottish Socialist Party, we are told, is one good model of how to do it; Rifondazione in Italy is another.
The AWL, the SWP, and so on, are all just factions. Something much broader is needed, and possible. It is possible because the crisis of capitalism has extinguished the possibilities of reformism, and the consequent reformist collapse has left a vacuum in working-class politics, waiting to be filled. The old arguments - reform and revolution, and so on - should not detain us.
Now, neither the SSP nor Rifondazione was created by people distributing leaflets broadcast, in Scotland or in Italy, to "campaign for a workers' party". Each was launched by a core of activists - the Scottish Militant, or the left of the old Italian Communist Party - building up a position sufficiently "hegemonic" on the left that it could take an initiative to reach out.
How do we get the strong core? Or do we rely on someone else (the SWP?) becoming strong enough, and then kindly agreeing to form a new party catholic enough for the smaller groups and the scattered activists to join? Does it not matter what the politics of the core are?
There is no magic leapfrog over the difficulties and battles of the existing activist left factions. Where there really is a "vacuum on the left", at present - and it is a difficulty, not an opportunity - is in theoretical and political life.
The last decade or so has created an intellectual demoralisation. Debate, education, sharp exchange of ideas - too much of the left regards that as "sectarianism", something that might have been necessary when there were confident reformists and Stalinists to contend with, but is surplus to requirements now.
The SWP, in its debates with the SSP, appeals to the need for clarity... but only in the abstract form of debating "reform or revolution?" As if occasional use of the nonsense slogan "one solution, revolution" makes such SWP policies as support for George Galloway "revolutionary"!
In fact, in a revolutionary situation any halfway radical party will call itself "revolutionary". The very mild and middle-class Portuguese Socialist Party did that in 1975. Outside a revolutionary situation, every sane policy is by definition one for partial measures and means to win them, and how do you judge which such policy is "revolutionary" and which is not?
Only by mapping out the arguments, testing them against the logic of class struggle, uniting in action as widely as possible when there is agreement, and debating when there is not.
There is no collapse of reformism that will save us the trouble of doing that. Blair's New Labour is still in office, and still looks likely to win the next election. The Social Democrats are in office in Germany. The Socialist Party has just made a big comeback in France's regional elections. The Olive Tree in Italy is at 40% in the opinion polls.
Those parties have moved to the right; their leaderships have weakened whatever ties they had with working-class organisation and become even more markedly bureaucratic outfits of professional politicians, relating to the populace through the media; active and lively reformism has been extinguished in favour of passive "lesser-evil" reformism. But that passive "lesser-evil" reformism, and the political machines based on it, are still strong forces.
And capitalist crises do not kill active and lively reformism. Often they stir it up. Mass revolutionary movements often emerge out of a rise of active reformism. In 1917 in Russia, the Bolsheviks won majority support only through a big political struggle within Soviets which were, at first, dominated by Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, effectively a reformist mass movement.
The German Social Democracy grew rapidly in the crisis years after World War One, from 250,000 members in 1918 to 1,450,000 in 1922. In the years of chaos and poverty after World War Two, it grew rapidly again to 850,000 members (in the West alone), gently declining again once the Marshall Plan and the Korean War boom reinvigorated German capitalism.
The British Labour Party had its biggest individual membership, and pushed through its biggest reforms, in the years after World War Two when the British economy was reeling from war damage and the loss of much of its empire, and food was rationed.
In the "Golden Age" of Western capitalism, all those parties rotted quietly in opposition. The Tories ruled Britain from 1951 to 1964. The Christian Democrats ruled Germany from the founding of the Federal Republic until 1969, and Italy from World War 2 to 1994. The Gaullists ruled France from 1958 to 1981.
The political convulsions of 1968, and the economic convulsions of 1969-71, 1974-5, and 1979-81, revived activity. The German Social Democracy's membership rose to over a million again. The French Communist Party and Socialist Party grew drastically. The Italian Communist Party had its best-ever electoral score, 34%, in 1976, while in the boom years it had got between 20 and 25%. British Labour's revival culminated in the rank and file rebellion of 1979-82.
A perspective whereby reformism gradually vacates the working class, leaving an open space for Marxists to capture so long as we keep our message "broad" and bland enough, is unrealistic.
The growth of new Marxist parties will come with a growth of active and lively struggles for reforms, and through a struggle of ideas within them. At present, the most lively renewed active reformism is in the "anti-capitalist" and environmentalist milieus. There will be other forms. They will certainly involve the trade unions. They may or may not involve revival of the old "reformist parties", or sections of them.
We would be wrong to look primarily to "the crisis" to provide the spur to struggle. With European labour movements battered by the huge global-capitalist restructurings of the last twenty years and by long-term mass unemployment, and still reeling ideologically from the collapse of Stalinism, crises can just as well turn passive reformism more pessimistic. We should look instead to another engine of struggle within capitalism: the gradual growth of confidence and maturing of contradictions among new sections of the working class generated by capitalist growth.
Passive reformism is not a vacuum. Today's capitalist societies, with their vast media barrage, are the least likely of all to leave working-class minds disillusioned with old parties as blank slates.
Marxist organisations can grow - but only by actively convincing people, working on the contradictions and diverging impulses in their thinking, not by regarding them as vacuum-heads who can be instantly corralled into a "broad" party if only we deliberately make our message ambiguous enough.
In the revival of the world labour movement from its drastic shaking-up over the last twenty years, which is bound to be a tortuous process, the advice that Engels gave for Marxists in the first emergence of labour movements holds good again:
"Our theory is a theory of evolution, not a dogma to be learned by heart and to be repeated mechanically... All our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation..."
Reviving radicalism will need space and time to experiment with ideas and debate them out. The model of a "party" as a tightly-controlled machine, inherited from Stalinism by all too many Marxists, will not suit. We will need the openness in debate practised at present by the AWL, the French LCR, and by very few other currents on the left.
The "broadness" of studied ambiguity or blandness is quite a different matter. Engels also argued that it was "necessary.... to form within this still quite plastic mass a core of people who understand the movement and its aims... thoroughly versed in theory and well-tested tactics... whose minds are theoretically clear".
And that core can be built only by working at it.