Socialism and Left Unity – A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
The Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are the two largest organisations on the ‘Marxist left’ in Britain. Therefore, in a period when the left in general has been weakened – as a, consequence of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the ideological offensive that flowed from this, combined with the neo-liberal fuelled boom – there are many who argue ‘why can’t you forget your differences and combine to unite yourselves and the left in a real alternative?’ Socialism and Left Unity, by Peter Taaffe, attempts to answer this question.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales is the sister organisation of the Socialist Party in Australia. We are linked to 40 other socialist groups around the world through the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). This book will be of interest to readers in Australia as groups like Socialist Alternative and Solidarity draw their roots back to the SWP in Britain – they share a common politics and approach. This book outlines many of the differences between the CWI and groups that are modelled on the British SWP.
The author, Peter Taaffe, is the General Secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and a member of the International Secretariat of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). Editor of the socialist newspaper Militant from its inception in 1964, he was one of the five Editorial Board members of the paper expelled from the Labour Party in 1983. Since the formation of Militant Labour, now the Socialist Party, he has been its General Secretary. He is the author of several books including Liverpool: A City that Dared to Fight, The Rise of Militant, Empire Defeated – The Vietnam War, Cuba: Socialism and Democracy, 1926 General Strike: Workers Taste Power and Marxism in Today’s World.
World capitalism and, along with it, diseased British capitalism have entered its worst period of crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) had anticipated this well in advance, as the columns of our newspaper, The Socialist, our journal ‘Socialism Today’ and the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International all demonstrate. Moreover, at the time of the first stages of the ‘subprime mortgages’ housing collapse in the US more than 12 months ago, we described this as a decisive turning point for world capitalism, a crisis which this time it was unlikely to evade. This, we argued, would have far-reaching effects of a social and a political character. The economic crisis would be more drawn out and deeper than most expected, particularly capitalist economists. Big questions would now be posed over the character of ‘modern’ capitalism and the reasons for the crisis. Given that Gordon Brown had boasted that New Labour had ended the cycle of ‘boom and bust’, the questioning in Britain would perhaps be strongest. Certainly, the political landscape in Britain and the world has been utterly changed by this crisis.
The events of September and October 2008 represented a huge blow against the idea of ‘free market’ capitalism. The economics editor of the Guardian, Larry Elliott, wrote: “Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs tycoon who became US treasury secretary, have done more for socialism in the past seven days than anybody since Marx and Engels.” By part-nationalisation of some banks, they have dealt a colossal blow to the idea of unregulated capitalism. State intervention by capitalism to ‘save their system’ rehabilitates the idea of the state solving workers’ problems.
Why then, on the eve of what promises to be momentous political events, produce a book dealing with a left organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and its record in the labour movement in Britain and internationally? History has shown that on the eve of and even during great events, it is not uncommon – in fact, it is sometimes vital – for reasons of political clarity for political debates to take place between different left parties or currents.
Witness the clash between the different trends within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) between the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) before the first, 1905, Russian revolution. These disputes centred over the character of the coming revolution and the tasks of the workers’ movement within this. Equally, the German revolution of 1918-23 – the 90th anniversary of which we celebrate in 2008 – saw the mass upheaval of the working class but, at the same time, intense discussion and debate on the programme, strategy, tactics and organisation to defeat the capitalist enemy.
Lenin explained this by invoking the parable of a man sharpening a knife on a stone. From a distance, it looked as though he was waving it around in an uncontrollable fashion. Upon closer examination, however, he was performing a necessary task. Serious debate within the workers’ movement on strategy, tactics and even organisation fulfils a similar role in sharpening the political and theoretical weapons for coming battles.
It is true that we are not yet at the stage in Britain reached in Russia or in Germany then. This is the most serious crisis for over 75 years, the first stages of what could be a chain of crises stretching over a lengthy period of time. Moreover, it comes, particularly in the case of Britain, after a 16-year period of uninterrupted growth, which has corroded the foundations of the official labour movement, signified by the disappearance of a distinct mass workers’ party, the Labour Party. The Blair-Brown duo and their supporters have transformed this party into a party of capital, with a complete absence of a worker base and, increasingly, a collapse of support even amongst ‘traditional’ Labour voters. This means that there is a colossal political vacuum, signified by the absence of a mass left pole of attraction. This holds back the working class from drawing all the necessary conclusions posed and mobilising against the intention of the capitalists to unload the burden of this crisis onto their shoulders.
Left organisations have sought to partially fill this gap, sometimes collaborating in order to lay the foundations for such an alternative. This has certainly been a vital aspect of the work of the Socialist Party in England and Wales throughout the 1990s and the first part of this century. The SWP, on the other hand, while formally subscribing to ‘left unity’ has, as we show, proved to be an obstacle to the creation of such an alternative force. Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1930s that if the Communist Party – under the tutelage of Stalinism it made numerous mistakes – had not existed in Britain then the revolutionary movement would have been immeasurably stronger:
“Without the smallest exaggeration one can confirm that from 1923 (for Britain especially from 1925) had the Comintern not existed, we would have today in Britain an incomparably more important revolutionary party.” [Leon Trotsky, Letter to Reg Groves, Trotsky on Britain, vol 3, p63.]
Unfortunately, on a smaller scale, the same conclusion can be drawn from the role of the SWP in the 1990s and since. Because the left has been smaller, they have been able to have a disproportionate effect in acting as an obstacle to the necessary crystallisation of a new, left, guiding socialist and Marxist layer. Playing a negative role in the past, they and others can have a disastrous effect if they or similar organisations cling to mistaken ideas and approach. This is why we take up the ideas of the SWP here.
Using the method of contrasts, we compare their ideas and ours on how best to take the left forward. But our arguments are not directed solely at the SWP and its supporters in the British and international labour movement. There are also organisations and groupings which have a similar approach. This book is a critique of what we believe are wrong methods in general, which in the crucial task of forging a new Marxist force can be a barrier to building a new mass workers’ left party in Britain. Our task above all is to seek to educate the new generation of workers and young people who will be moved into action by the great events that impend in Britain and worldwide. Many will investigate the credentials – including the history of all organisations – before engaging with them. A serious examination – which we aim for here – would show that the SWP in its fundamental ideas, its approach and, above all, its method has been found wanting. Unless they change, they can still have a negative effect in the battles to come.
This is not the first work to criticise or engage in debate members of the SWP. Peter Hadden produced an excellent and substantial work in 1999 on the methods of the SWP in general, with specific examples of their disastrous outcome in Ireland and elsewhere [Peter Hadden, ‘The Struggle for Socialism Today – A Reply to the Politics of the Socialist Workers Party’, 1999, found at www.marxist.net]. That retains its full validity today. Yet his critique did not even receive one line of reply, apart from a few mumbled, verbal comments from SWP members: “Why engage in polemics now when the labour movement should be interested in more important issues?”
This book has been produced, as a supplement and complementary work to Peter Hadden’s. It covers some of the same ground as his, but from a more ‘British’ party and ‘international’ standpoint. Moreover, the SWP has changed and done a somersault on many of the issues but not all that he criticised. It is possible, even likely, that this book will not evoke any reply from the SWP either.
Frankly, we would not be surprised from an organisation that seeks to draw a veil over its past mistakes, particularly as it is now retreating from its recent more ‘open’ phase of approaching others on the left. The ultra-left sectarian tactics of the early 1990s, which in practice it never abandoned, have been maintained even when they give the impression of wanting to work in collaboration with others on the left.
The debacles of the Socialist Alliance and Respect have provoked a crisis within their ranks – possibly the biggest in their history – signified by the removal from influence and public positions in the now to be disbanded ‘Left Alternative’ of some of their leading lights such as John Rees and Lindsey German. This appears to have been organised by a majority around the SWP’s main theoretician Alex Callinicos. The SWP, no doubt, wishes to discount its recent past by such measures by the removal of those figures most closely associated with this. There are, accordingly, no reasons given why these individuals have been removed; no explanation, no analysis of previous mistakes and failures. ‘Year Zero’, it seems, is their approach towards the recent past. The new generation of recruits will therefore be ignorant of, or will not examine too closely, their real history, which we trace out in this book.
We hope to reach – if not SWP members who can still be won to a Marxist approach – others and hope to educate them against these methods, which can only prepare further political cul-de-sacs and a weakening of the left in the task of rebuilding the labour movement on socialist and Marxist lines.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are the two largest organisations on the ‘Marxist left’ in Britain. Therefore, in a period when the left in general has been weakened – as a consequence of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the ideological offensive that flowed from this, combined with the neo-liberal fuelled boom – there are many who argue ‘why can’t you forget your differences and combine to unite yourselves and the left in a real alternative?’
This urge for unity of the left is keenly felt, particularly by the new generation, unburdened as it is with the baggage of the past and eager to see a more powerful left pole of attraction. We entirely share these sentiments and, in fact, the need to maximise the greatest potential for the left, both on the industrial and political planes, has been central to the approach of the Socialist Party. The collapse of the Labour Party, for instance, from a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ – a pro-capitalist leadership but with a working-class base, particularly through the trade unions – into an open agency of big business, led us to draw the conclusion that it was necessary to pose the question of a working-class political alternative.
For the first time in over 100 years there is no mass political force of the British working class, a situation that is now common to most countries across the world following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 and, with it, the state-owned planned economy. We also recognised that the political understanding of the working class – in a broad sense – had been thrown back. This arose mainly because of the demise of the planned economies of Eastern Europe, which acted in an economic sense, at least, as an alternative to capitalism, despite the monstrous Stalinist totalitarian regime. This allowed the possessing classes to launch a colossal ideological barrage against ‘socialism’. This meant that it was not possible to immediately create a mass party but steps had to be taken to lay the foundations for such a project at a later stage. This is why as soon as the early 1990s it was ‘Militant Labour’ (which subsequently became the Socialist Party) which first launched the idea of the ‘Socialist Alliance’, which was founded in Scotland, England and Wales. In Scotland, this was the forerunner of what became the Scottish Socialist Party. In England and Wales, it took the form of loose forums of different left groups, many of them with serious ideological differences with the Socialist Party, but who were prepared to discuss and collaborate where possible on united action.
At this stage, the SWP was still wedded to their ‘ourselves alone’ sectarian tactics, claiming they were the only viable Marxist organisation in Britain, with absurd political perspectives, as we will see later. However, the political cul-de-sac they were in, reinforced by the death of Tony Cliff, their main political ideologue and the author of their tactics in the 1990s, forced a change in their approach. At this stage, the Socialist Party engaged in discussions with the SWP, as the CWI did with a number of other Marxist and Trotskyist forces internationally – notably the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), and the Morenoite groups the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (LIT – International Workers League) and the Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores (Workers’ International Unity – UIT), both largely based in Latin America. This was in order to see if it was possible to arrive at agreement on common tasks for the workers’ movement. However, the discussions with the SWP came to nothing since they believed they did not need to seek common points of agreement with others on the Marxist left. They nevertheless later turned towards the Socialist Alliance, which generated illusions in the ranks of other left organisations, but not with us, that the SWP had undergone a serious and genuine ‘change of heart’ and were now prepared to work in an open and collaborative fashion with others.
However, those hopes were soon dashed as the SWP, in effect, sought to establish a narrow organisational dominance within the Socialist Alliance. They rejected the Socialist Party’s proposals to develop the existing federal form of organisation for the Alliance. This was dismissed out of hand – as we will see later -by the SWP and their allies, most of whom wished to move towards a ‘party-type structure’ as rapidly as possible. We warned that this was premature, a formula for conflict, for mutual lack of confidence between the participants in the Alliance. It was necessary, we argued, for the different genuine left organisations to engage in a fairly lengthy period of discussion and clarification on the programme for the Alliance and on working together. This would best be served by a ‘federal’-type organisation, an idea which had strong historical roots in Britain. Unfortunately, our proposals were rejected. We predicted that after we were compelled to leave the Alliance, the allies of the SWP would come into collision with them, which was subsequently borne out.
This is not an accidental phenomenon where this organisation is concerned. In every collaboration they have been involved in, it is a question of ‘rule or ruin’ – they must exercise a dominating influence, not through political argument but organisationally, or they would seek to undermine or bypass those organisations if they do not get their way. Nor is it a recent trend of the SWP as a brief excursion into the history of the SWP, as we will do here, will demonstrate. After our departure, using their numerical majority, the SWP then ‘liquidated’ the Socialist Alliance, when the launch of ‘Respect’, with George Galloway and his allies, became a seemingly more attractive proposition. When the idea of Respect was floated by George Galloway, we were again prepared to engage in a dialogue with him, the SWP and others involved in its preparation and launch to see if we could find a way of gathering together a new pole of attraction for the disparate forces of the left. The discussions came to nothing because both Galloway and the SWP – each for their own reasons – once more rejected an inclusive federal approach.
The SWP failed badly in the 2008 elections in London, following the split with George Galloway in Respect. The SWP was not allowed to stand as ‘Respect’ so they stood as the ‘Left List’. But their previous association with ‘Respect’ and its policies was clear. The results of these elections, together with the split in Respect, have thrown the SWP into crisis. This arose from an attempt to secure easy popularity on an opportunist programme – with unprincipled and unnecessary concessions to ethnicity and communalism – combined with an intolerant approach towards others. They also had a grossly exaggerated expectation of election victories. Following their split with George Galloway, he was suddenly transformed from a hero into someone who had allegedly moved towards the right. He was demonised now because he either supported or based himself upon ‘communalist’ ideas. Yet previously, he had enjoyed big support in the eyes of the SWP and its members, both in Tower Hamlets, where George is an MP, and nationally. The pathetic attempt to present the split in Respect as between ‘left and right’ did not cut any ice, particularly with experienced socialists who have been looking at the developments on the left and particularly Respect over the past period.
The SWP has emerged from the debacle of Respect with its reputation even further tarnished, particularly on its inability to work in a loyal fashion with others to create a stronger, combined force on the left able to have a broader impact on the British working class. They are attempting now to cover up the real reasons as to why they have arrived at this impasse. There may be some who may still believe that these are merely episodic mistakes of the SWP. However, the political deficiencies of this party go much deeper into its history, when the issue is posed before them of trying to form broader organisations, encompassing wider layers other than themselves on a principled basis. An examination of their record will reveal the deeply flawed method of the SWP on one of the key tasks confronting the Marxist movement today – how to apply the tactic of the united front to today’s world.
The SWP leaders, in speeches and articles, endlessly intone that they support and apply Lenin and Trotsky’s idea of the ‘united front’. This was an undoubtedly vital weapon, for instance, in the success of the Bolshevik party, the political instrument for carrying through the greatest revolution in history in October 1917. It was also key in the formation of mass communist parties in the post-First World War period. On the other hand, the failure to apply the united front by the Stalinists was a major contributory factor in the derailing of the German revolution, which allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933.
However, the classical period of the political united front involves mass working-class formations. These do not exist today, and this will only change in the main on the basis of big events. Nevertheless, in the present situation, an element, at least, of the united front is posed both in the political and trade union fields. Is the SWP capable of participating in an honest, principled fashion in this process? Their history does not hold out much hope of this.
Historical Roots of the SWP
The SWP today finds its ideological roots in post-1945 British Trotskyism, which split into three main trends. What became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) was a group initially led by Gerry Healy, who was, for a while, the main representative of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International, led by Ernest Mandel, Livio Maitan, Pierre Frank and Michael Pablo. Healy’s organisation became notorious for its virulent sectarianism, combined with hooligan methods reminiscent of Stalinism, deployed internally but also against its rivals on the left. It also opportunistically sought during its ‘Socialist Outlook’ period in the 1950s to merge with left MPs on a minimum reformist programme.
The trend from which the present Socialist Party began, preceded by Militant, came from the current led by Jock Haston, Ted Grant and the Deane brothers, particularly Jimmy. They had basically a correct position towards world economic perspectives and, initially at least, on perspectives for the Labour Party. The Labour Party then was not a favourable milieu for Marxists because of the beginning of the world economic boom and the strength that this gave to right-wing Labour reformism. Ted Grant played a progressive role ideologically for an important historical period, but he was inept at organisation and internal debates. Although he was generally politically correct at this stage, he therefore lost out in the struggle between different trends within Trotskyism, becoming the weakest group emanating from post-war Trotskyism. While initially opposing, correctly, work in the Labour Party in the late 1940s and 1950s, he nevertheless capitulated later, suggesting ex-post facto reasons for this: “In or out of the Labour Party, Marxists could not gain.” In reality, a more fruitful tactic would have been to concentrate in the trade unions at that stage, in preparation for work in the Labour Party in a future period, when it would become radicalised through the development of events, as subsequently transpired.
The other trend was the International Socialists led by Tony Cliff. The theoretical foundations of this grouping were the ideas of ‘state capitalism’ which, ironically, Ted Grant provided Cliff with when he flirted with ‘state capitalism’ in the period of the triumph of Stalinism emanating from the Second World War. Ted Grant subsequently rejected the ideas of ‘state capitalism’ but Cliff went on to provide a theoretical underpinning to this idea. But his characterisation of the regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe as ‘state capitalist’ was and is unscientific and superficial from a Marxist point of view. Like his forerunners Burnham and Shachtman in the US in the 1930s, Cliff was reacting subjectively and not objectively to the monstrous anti-democratic political superstructure in these states – authoritarianism, brutal repression of opposition, a one-party regime, etc. – which nevertheless rested on planned economies.
The criteria for Marxists in the class character of a regime is ultimately determined by the forms and ownership of the productive forces – industry, science, technique and the organisation of labour – upon which the state is constructed. From Marx himself, scientific socialists have used these broad criteria to judge the character of a regime and to decide whether it was progressive or not. The broad economic schema traced out by Marx and Engels holds that feudalism, for instance, was individual production by the peasant and the appropriation of the surplus created by their labour garnered by the feudal lords. Upon this basis was constructed the military-feudal state which, despite differences between one regime and another, was fundamentally the same.
Capitalism, which superseded feudalism, meant social production by the working class, drawn into the towns and organised in big industry, producing in common and the appropriation of the surplus that they produced by the individual capitalist. Socialism, on the other hand – its highest stage, which Marx characterised as communism – would mean social production and social appropriation. Based upon a society of superabundance, it would be a question of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. All the remnants of class society and capitalism – money, classes, the state, would disappear in a self-governing commune. But in the transition from capitalism to the beginning of socialism – which would only be possible on a world scale and begin with a higher level of production than that reached by the most developed capitalist country, the USA today – a nationalised economy would be the only possible foundation of a workers’ state.
We have been given the outline of such a state, not in theory but in the living reality of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the state which ushered from that, until 1923, of what it is likely to be. This was a state which rested on nationalised property forms. There remained elements of capitalism – a surplus created by the labour of the working class, money, the state itself, classes, etc. – which were carried over to the new society. But this was not capitalism by virtue of the fact that planning of the productive forces was now possible for the first time in history, something impossible under capitalism as the current crisis of world capitalism has shown. The former chairman of the US Fed, Alan Greenspan, recently admitted that “he didn’t get it” when it came to understanding the new ‘financial instruments’ which fuelled the latest boom. Eddie George, former Governor of the Bank of England, also confessed he did not understand them either. In other words, the ‘captains’ on the bridge of world capitalism were ‘flying blind’, dictated by rather than dictating to the capitalist system.
The regime of the Bolsheviks, of Lenin and Trotsky, between 1917 and 1923 was enormously progressive compared to capitalism, even though the revolution had taken place in an economically backward country. It was, moreover, conceived as a prelude to world revolution. If, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, the movement had spread to Germany, for instance, then the socialist revolution would undoubtedly have taken place on a European scale. Even without the revolution immediately spreading to the rest of the world, a united democratic socialist states of Europe would have unleashed the potential of the productive forces, which in a relatively short historical period would have outstripped even the subsequent spectacular achievements of the US.
However, the siege by the 21 armies of imperialism, the civil war and the economic, military and diplomatic blackmail aimed against Russia by the combined weight of world capitalism and the failure of favourable opportunities for revolution in Europe meant the Russian revolution was isolated. This, in turn, resulted in the rise of a bureaucratic layer, which eventually culminated in the seizure of power in the state by this stratum, personified by the rise of Stalin. Russia was transformed from a relatively healthy workers’ state into what Trotsky and the International Left Opposition called a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, dominated by the Stalinist bureaucratic caste. Nevertheless, the main gains of the Russian Revolution were retained and, moreover, demonstrated their spectacular advantage over capitalism in the rates of growth achieved by the planned economy in the 1930s, for instance. This was possible even with the disadvantages of the monstrous, one-party totalitarian regime of Stalin and the bureaucratic elite. From a Marxist point of view, this regime was relatively progressive.
In the same way, despite the horrors of capitalism and the industrial revolution, including slavery, capitalism for a time, according to Marx and Engels was a relatively progressive regime compared to the stultification and stagnation of the productive forces under feudalism. This did not mean that Marx and Engels reconciled themselves to capitalism. On the contrary, they stood for the taking of power out of the hands of the capitalist class and placing it in the hands of the working class and the construction of what we would call today a workers’ democracy. The Paris Commune in 1871 showed that the possibility of revolution was lodged in the situation, even in the progressive phase of capitalism. But in the absence of this, capitalism was still a relatively progressive system. But by the First World War it had become an absolute fetter on further progress.
Capitalism, in its emergence and subsequent developments, adopted a variety of state forms. Capitalist democracy – the right to strike, free elections, freedom of assembly, the solution of the national question, etc. – was the most progressive and advantageous from the point of view of the working class and its organisations. Capitalism has experienced different types of ‘political superstructures’ from ‘democracy’ to dictatorship – including the most virulent and vicious forms in the Nazis in Germany, Mussolini’s fascists in Italy and Franco in Spain. But because the productive forces were still owned and largely controlled by the capitalists, private ownership held sway – those regimes were capitalist. Where a state in the form of fascism arose, it invariably ‘politically expropriated’ even the individual capitalists themselves, sometimes locking up sections of them, while still fulfilling the role as the state guard over private property in general.
A mechanical or crude ‘Marxist’ sees phenomena in simple black or white terms – workers’ state, non-workers’ state – instead of approaching these phenomena from an all-sided, that is, a dialectical, manner. This is the method of Tony Cliff and his followers, including the current leadership of the Socialist Workers Party and their international organisation, the International Socialist Tendency (IST), in their analysis of the Stalinist states. Their reaction to the horrors of Stalinism was essentially an emotional one rather than a sober materialist Marxist approach of supporting what was progressive in these states while implacably opposing the backward, indeed counter-revolutionary, features of Stalinism. This has enmeshed them in all kinds of difficulties, paradoxically, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the discrediting of this model.
Korean and Vietnam Wars
Their essentially superficial reaction to events was demonstrated in the different positions adopted by the Cliff tendency to important international events, particularly to wars. For instance in the Korean War they were neutral – ‘neither Washington, Beijing nor Moscow but international socialism’. Their stance in the Vietnam War was different. The Korean War was an unpopular war, with a substantial layer of the intellectual milieu, from which historically the International Socialists initially drew support, repelled by the North Korean regime and the role of China in the conflict. But US imperialism, having lost China, was eager to stem the further spread of ‘communism’ in Asia. They therefore intervened to save the South Korean regime, which had initially lost its capital Seoul to the forces from the North. They subsequently imposed on what became South Korea the capitalist hangman regime of Syngman Rhee.
Marxists in this conflict had the duty to defend what was progressive in the movement in the North and in China and oppose what was retrogressive from the standpoint of the working class. The tendency towards expropriation of the landlords and actions against feudalism in Korea were steps forward. At the same time, while supporting this, Marxists and Trotskyists at the time advanced the idea of workers’ democracy. When China intervened, it did so not primarily out of the interests of solidarity with the revolution in Korea but in order to further the strategic interests of the new Stalinist Chinese regime. Nevertheless, its action objectively was to further the progress of revolution, albeit in a caricatured, Stalinist fashion. In this situation, a Pontius Pilate kind of ‘neutrality’ – adopted by the predecessors of the SWP – was a totally unmarxist approach, because objectively it meant either supporting or acquiescing to the reactionary war aims of the US, Britain and others.
Moreover, the SWP was entirely inconsistent when approaching a basically similar phenomenon in the case of the Vietnam War, which reached its height in the 1960s and early 1970s. As with the followers of the USFI, they gave unqualified, uncritical support to Ho Chi Minh – chanting on demonstrations ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ – against US imperialism. At this stage, the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Britain, Europe and the US – including the middle-class intellectuals, students, etc. – had swung over to implacable opposition to US imperialism. To have taken up the position they adopted in the Korean War would have risked unpopularity amongst this layer. They therefore, opportunistically – even from their own historical-theoretical standpoint – adapted to the movement that was taking place with all its illusions in the Vietnamese NLF and parroted the slogans ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ and ‘Victory to the NLF’ on demonstrations, alongside supporters of the USFI and others. Militant gave unconditional support to the Vietnamese revolution but warned that even if victorious, the regime that would emerge would be the same as in the North, a planned economy but with a one-party state. This would then pose the task of fighting for workers’ democracy in a unified Vietnam.
Occasionally the SWP murmured under their breath about the North Vietnamese regime being ‘state capitalist’ but this enmeshed them in all kinds of contradictions. Was the North Vietnamese regime progressive? It was based upon a planned economy but with a one-party political regime. If the answer is ‘Yes’, why the difference in their position on Vietnam to that of North Korea and the Chinese forces during the Korean War?
Collapse of Stalinism and the 1990s
If they were to answer that North Vietnam was more ‘progressive’, then how to explain their position at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when the liquidation of the planned economy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was, for them, not a great negative historical turning point but a ‘sideways move’, the replacement of ‘state capitalism’ by capitalism? According to the theoreticians of the SWP/IST – particularly Cliff before he died in 2000 – the liquidation of the planned economies in the Stalinist states as well as the sweeping away of the autocratic regimes was of no fundamental importance and had no effect on the consciousness of the working class in Britain or internationally. Indeed, their analysis was, according to their main theoretician today, Alex Callinicos, a positive advantage:
“The theoretical understanding of Stalinism provided by Cliff’s analysis, allowed the IST to resist the wave of despondency that swept over the left after 1989 and to grow very substantially in the 1990s”. [Alex Callinicos, ‘Notes on Regroupment’, 2 April 2001.]
This was summed up theoretically by Cliff’s characterisation of the 1990s as “the 1930s in slow motion”. There is no more fundamental error for a Marxist than to mistake counter-revolution for revolution. Yet this was the ‘mistake’ made by the Socialist Workers Party at a decisive turning point in history.
It is true that others such as the late Ted Grant and Alan Woods, formerly with us in Militant until 1992 and who had a different analysis of Stalinism to the Cliffites, were also initially unable to face up to reality and denied that a social counter-revolution and a bourgeois state had been re-established in Russia in the early 1990s. (They were forced to correct this analysis and recognise the establishment of a capitalist state in 1997!) The Morenoite Trotskyist organisation in Latin America similarly greeted the overthrow of Stalinism as ushering in a new revolutionary period, forgetting a small detail: it was accompanied by the liquidation of the state-owned planned economy. The USFI was compelled to recognise what took place, even if a little belatedly, but without a coherent analysis of what this meant for the workers’ movement internationally. Alone of all these trends, the CWI recognised early on what was taking place in Russia. It was a decisive turning point in history; a bourgeois regime had come to power and had begun, through the most brutal methods of ‘shock therapy’, a rapid transition to capitalism. Similar developments at a greater or lesser speed took place in all the states of Eastern Europe.
1990s – A favourable period?
What were the consequences of this historic negative turning point for the SWP and the IST? It was ‘favourable’ for socialists and Marxists! But for practically every other serious trend within the workers’ movement internationally, apart from the Morenoites, it represented a colossal retrogressive development for socialists. The capitalists, through one of its mouthpieces, the Wall Street Journal, summed it up when it simply declared that in the struggle between capitalism and ‘socialism’, “We won”. The careful analysis of the CWI showed that this was a big victory with important economic and political gains for the ruling class – coinciding as it did with the neo-liberal economic process under way. Nevertheless, it did not represent the same kind of historic setback like the victory of the Nazis in Germany, of Mussolini or Franco in the interwar period. The organisations of the working class remained intact but were now subjected to a huge ideological offensive in favour of the free market and against ‘socialism’.
Together with the boom that was under way in the 1990s, this had a big effect on the consciousness of the working class, shaking to its foundations what support existed for ‘socialism’ and the idea of ‘planning’. The most decisive effect of the bourgeois ideological barrage was on the tops of the organised labour movement, the workers’ parties and the trade unions. We saw, as we first explained, a process of ‘bourgeoisification’ of the workers’ parties, with the abandonment of even the historic aim of socialism; for instance, the scrapping of Clause 4 – standing for the nationalisation of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy – in the Labour Party in Britain. This was an international phenomenon. The process was marked, seemed to sweep all before it, including the overwhelming majority of formerly radicalised intellectuals. They went over en masse to the idea of capitalism, to what later became known as the ‘Washington consensus’. Capitalism, albeit purified of its most obnoxious features, was now the only historic choice, concluded the tops of the labour movement and the overwhelming majority of former left intellectuals.
If the regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were just ‘state capitalist’, without an atom of support in the consciousness of the working class and its organisations internationally, how then to explain the success of the bourgeois? Their campaign undoubtedly affected not just the leaders but perhaps the majority of the population, including the working class? The workers, particularly its most developed layers, while instinctively opposing the one-party regimes of Stalinism – which were used as scarecrows to frighten the populations of the West against socialism in the past – nevertheless instinctively recognised that in the planning of basic industries, resources, facilities, social services and education was the economic germ of a new society.
After all, Engels, in the nineteenth century, saw in the tendency towards monopoly and the economic intervention of the state that the bourgeois were forced to undertake the signs of “the invading socialist revolution”. Engels was well aware that these did not constitute the socialist revolution but an element of ‘state capitalism’ – where the state could take over a minority of industries.
Nevertheless, he recognised that this represented a substantial step forward for the working class because it underlined the incapacity of the capitalists to run these industries (as it did in the 2008 crisis) and posed the question of this example spreading to other industries and ultimately to the economy as a whole.
For the same reasons, Blair opposed re-nationalisation of the railways in Britain, despite overwhelming public support for this idea. Brown also fought ferociously to prevent the nationalisation of Northern Rock for the same reasons, but was compelled to do so because there was no alternative. He has been compelled to go even further with the partial nationalisation of the banks in Britain, as has the US – through the gritted teeth of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Bush – and also Europe.
Extended on a national plane with the takeover of most industries, this would have constituted for Marx and Engels a fundamental breech with capitalism. This was made clear in the criticisms they made of the lack of such measures – the failure to nationalise the Bank of France – by the Paris Commune of 1871. In Cuba today, moreover, where the basic elements of the planned economy, albeit weakened, are still preserved, many workers and young people, not all of them socialists by any means, recognise its progressive aspects. This is especially visible in social services, education and health, even in a backward country and particularly compared to the US. At the same time they oppose, or at least have reservations, about the absence of democracy, particularly workers’ democracy, on the island.
Downturn – false characterisation
Trotsky was fond of mocking the Stalinists for consistently misunderstanding the objective situation by invoking the parable of the Russian fool who sang a wedding song at a funeral and a funeral song at a wedding. The SWP today is guilty of adopting the same stance. According to the SWP’s theoreticians, the late 1970s and 1980s was a period of ‘downswing’ and the 1990s represented a revival of radicalisation and increased possibilities for them and the revolutionary left. In an overview of the period which included the miners’ strike, John Rees wrote in 2001:
“For 20 years socialists and working class activists have seen trade unionism, welfare provision and left wing consciousness in retreat. We have fought, sometimes in battles on the epic scale of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, but mostly we have lost. In the 1990s the tide began to turn, at first slowly, almost imperceptibly. Attitudes began to shift. The mania for the market subsided. The poll tax was defeated. Thatcher and Reagan passed into unbalanced retirement. The transformation in popular attitudes eventually registered in a massive electoral defeat for the Tories, part of a European-wide pattern.”
He compared this to the 1990s and since:
“There has been no year since the 1970s when we could look back over a 12-month period and see an unbroken chain of international demonstrations like those which began in Seattle, and carried on through Washington and Los Angeles in the United States, Windsor in Canada, Melbourne in Australia, Millau and Nice in France, Prague in the Czech Republic, and Davos in Switzerland.
“In Seattle, in Millau and in Nice the labour movement participated on a massive scale. Many tens of thousands of organised workers marched in the most politicised environment of the last 20 years. This is a large claim, but it can be justified by comparing the current struggles to earlier movements. The miners’ demonstrations in Britain, especially in 1992, were bigger. But they were defeated and, however angry, were concerned with the single issue. The poll tax demonstration in 1990 was large, militant and victorious but contained no sizeable contingent of organised workers and was concerned with a single issue. The demonstrations and public sector general strikes in France in 1995 are the most obvious precursor. They were part of a rising tide of industrial struggle and highly politicised. But even they did not openly direct their anger against the capitalist system, and they were not part of an international movement in the way that the demonstrations of 2000 have been… The revolutionary left has a vital role to play in this discussion, so long as it does not ignore the movement or hector activists in a know-it-all tone.”
The utter confusion of the SWP’s (former) leader is summed up in his further comments:
“The collapse of the Stalinist states, because they were widely associated with socialism, confirmed the prejudices of ruling class and social democratic commentators. It also demoralised the Stalinist-oriented left, which included many on the Labour left… The 1990s marked a general move to the left in popular consciousness, and therefore exposed the gap between the New Labour type of social democratic leader and the mass of their traditional supporters. This chasm exists over a number of central issues.” [John Rees, ‘Anti-capitalism, reformism and socialism’, Issue 90, International Socialism Journal, Spring 2001.]
The ‘left’ – “Stalinist-oriented” – was demoralised by the collapse of Stalinist states but despite this, there was a “move to the left in popular consciousness”, reasons John Rees. Cocooned in a false theoretical straitjacket, the SWP could not see that the whole movement – the “popular masses” as well as the leaders – were thrown back by this development. The exceptions to this were some middle class layers who could be energised temporarily by the rosy, romantic perspectives of the SWP.
However, their attempt to fit an artificial and arbitrary construction into the real situation in Britain from the 1970s onwards comes unstuck when we examine the real situation. In the late 1970s we saw the beginning of a new, important industrial movement, a working-class revival, which did not stop at the end of the decade but carried on into the 1980s. For instance, in 1978 at the Labour Party conference, a successful resolution moved by Militant supporters gave encouragement to the trade union struggle which helped to smash the government’s wages policy. This was a big factor in encouraging the massive industrial wave which followed, particularly from lower-paid workers, reflected in the so-called ‘winter of discontent’.
Moreover, in the 1980s, the Labour Party underwent colossal change, with the most serious challenge to the right in generations – Tony Benn’s quest for the deputy leadership of the party – with Militant playing a crucial role. So endangered were the right by this that, together with the capitalists, they unleashed a witch-hunt against the Militant Editorial Board. Five of us were expelled in 1983, but at the cost for them of storing up even greater support for our ideas and the left as a whole. In this tumultuous period, which saw big movements of young people and workers, the SWP was largely a bystander. In the miners’ strike, their position was that the NUM could not win, because the “character of the period” was “defensive”. But this was a ‘civil war without guns’ – the most important industrial movement since the Chartists and the 1926 General Strike – with Militant playing a key role, recruiting in the process 500 miners to our ranks. Moreover, it was not at all preordained, as the fatalistic theoreticians of the SWP imagined, that the miners were doomed automatically to go down to defeat. History would have turned out differently if the right-wing trade union leaders had come to the support of the miners. There were crucial turning points in the struggle when it was not at all guaranteed that Thatcher and the government would win.
At a time of alleged ‘downswing’, we witnessed the mighty Liverpool struggle of 1983 to 1987, within which the government was forced to initially retreat. Liverpool, it is true, could not fight alone but even with the setbacks of 1986-87, the movement did not die down; witness the printers’ battle, the victorious poll tax struggle, etc. It is true that, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, the methods of neo-liberalism were already taking shape with the development of new technology, one expression of this being the pressure for part-time jobs at the expense of full-time ones. But in order for this to come to fruition, it was necessary for the political preconditions to be established in the form of a serious defeat for the working class and its organisations. Murdoch achieved this against the printers at Wapping. But this would not have been possible in the first instance without the defeat of the miners and the Liverpool and Lambeth councillors.
Only political eunuchs could describe this period as one of ‘downswing’, particularly as the 1980s bowed out to the roar of the poll tax battle, in which again the SWP played no significant role. In fact, through its leading theoretician and founder Tony Cliff, it adopted a disdainful and totally wrong attitude:
“The non-payment campaign in Scotland does not exist. Not paying your poll tax is like getting on a bus and not paying your fare; all that will happen is that you’ll get thrown off.”! [Tony Cliff, speaking at Newcastle Polytechnic SWSS meeting, May 1989.]
The huge blunder that the SWP made in the anti-poll tax struggle – in effect abstention from this battle – they have since admitted:
“Their [the Scottish Socialist Party’s] prominence is in part a consequence of our past mistakes, in particular the opening we gave to Militant through our failure properly to intervene in the anti-Poll Tax movement in Scotland.” [Alex Callinicos, IST Circular on Regroupment, 17 May 2001.]
Poll tax battle
Callinicos ex post facto presents this as a mere ‘oversight’ by the SWP. On the contrary, as Cliff admitted, they had no feel or perception of the threat the poll tax represented for the working class. In fact, they made the same mistake as Thatcher herself – from the opposite pole – in underestimating the effects the poll tax would have. Following the defeats of Liverpool and the miners – in a period of ‘downswing’, remember, for the SWP – both the SWP and Thatcher concluded that the working class would not be able to withstand the Thatcher juggernaut. Compare this to our attitude outlined in Militant immediately after the 1987 general election:
“We don’t just want concessions or amendments, we want this [poll tax] legislation chucked out. The labour movement throughout Britain must campaign around this issue… The movement must mobilise and fight back, drawing up plans for non-co-operation and non-implementation of this legislation.” [Militant, Issue 857, 17 July 1987.]
The SWP’s loss was the anti-poll tax campaign’s gain. Their intervention in this movement would have played the same divisive sectarian role as in other campaigns – then and now. When, belatedly, they sought to intervene, they totally misread the situation. After the so-called anti-poll tax ‘Trafalgar Square riot’ – in which they played a less than glorious role – they boasted that it was this that defeated the poll tax. In fact, it was the mass anti-poll tax campaign – which organised 18 million people in a campaign of non-payment – that smashed the tax and relegated Thatcher to the dustbin of history. Militant – through the anti-poll tax unions – not the SWP achieved this great historic victory!
At the beginning of the 1990s, the SWP, with their wrong perspectives, appeared to be successful. Using the methods of massive flyposting, recruiting from universities – accompanied by rapid turnover – for a period they managed to defy the laws of political gravity and seemed, unlike most left groups, to have grown. However, we predicted that they would inevitably stub their toes, and a lot more besides, against reality, which was in contradiction to their theory and analysis of the situation. Some of their longstanding members, comparing theory then to reality today, could not but help questioning the analysis which underpinned their work for more than 15 years. In their bulletin following the Respect collapse, Mark Steel (who was then still a member of the SWP) wrote:
“The triumphalist tone of the SWP throughout recent times may have been misjudged. It’s also possible the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago has had a greater global impact on socialist ideas than we anticipated. It may be that we over-estimated the revival of the organised labour movement, and the left in general has shrivelled. The difficulties in maintaining our organisation may be down to these reasons, or maybe something else, but our response has been to deny the problems altogether.”
Steel gives a catalogue of instances showing the decline of the SWP, giving examples of how far the party has shrunk:
“These examples aren’t one-off failures of planning, they’re typical and not exceptions. There may be areas that have resisted the trend, but the overall decline is inescapable. But the most disturbing side to the SWP’s decline has been the refusal to acknowledge this trend is taking place at all. For some time we were told there were ten thousand members, although this was a patently absurd figure. This number seems to have been revised downwards, which leaves two possibilities, either that the original figure was wrong or we’ve suddenly lost thousands of members, either one of which should merit a thorough discussion. But far from having one, anyone who has raised the issue has been derided.” [Mark Steel, ‘Ah, the British left, what we do to ourselves’, SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin 2007.]
Given the objective situation that followed the collapse of Stalinism, reinforced by the move to the right of the broad ‘subjective factor’ – the labour movement and particularly its leadership – those on the ‘revolutionary left’ were certain to have faced a decline. There are periods in history when a dozen Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotskys would not have been able to advance Marxism substantially or the labour movement greatly. Marx and Engels were ‘isolated’ following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and were compelled for a considerable period of time to ‘swim against the stream’. This involved maintaining, in the case of Marx and Engels developing, the body of ideas that in the right hands could serve the labour movement well later. But their forces were small, even puny. Marx and Engels, in the creation of the First International, were therefore forced to collaborate with non-socialist English trade unionists, anarchists, and others.
This enterprise demonstrated in action – particularly in the 1871 Paris Commune – the ideas of Marx and Engels and the international solidarity and organisation of the working class. It served to be a great example that was taken up later in the formation of the Second International and mass socialist parties. Similarly, Lenin, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky were isolated to a couple of dozen leading comrades in Russia following the defeat of the 1905-07 revolution. Moreover, Lenin was compelled to fight against ultra-leftism – the boycott of the Duma (Russian parliament) was one instance – and the opportunist ‘liquidators’. The latter wanted to dissolve the illegal party organisations and concentrate solely on the limited opportunities for ‘legal’ work under the tsarist autocracy.
Militant, now the Socialist Party, and the Committee for a Workers’ International, also faced problems following the fall of the Berlin Wall, including a decline in membership, which was inevitable given the colossal pressure of what appeared to be a revived capitalism on the small numbers in the ranks of the Marxists. This was reflected in opportunist impatience by some. The liquidation of a clearly defined Marxist organization within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) resulted from this. Others bent to the pressures of the economic revival evident in the early 1990s and sustained until now. Invoking the development of new technology as a principled argument, but also because of the turn towards the right in the ANC, leading South African CWI members capitulated to this and sought to collapse our organisation as they left our ranks. A similar development took place in Liverpool where people who had played a big role in assisting the building of a powerful position for Marxism in the city also crumbled under the pressure.
Some of our political opponents – particularly the theoreticians of the SWP – at this time wrote obituaries for the CWI and Militant, later the Socialist Party, in particular. But, because our analysis was based on firm foundations, with a sober worked-out perspective, despite the contraction of our organisation we were able to withstand the pressures of the 1990s – notwithstanding some splits and the weaknesses that flowed from this – in a much better state than revolutionary organisations in similar periods in the past.
Tony Cliff’s role
The SWP, on the other hand, seemed at first to defy the pressure of the situation but as Mark Steel indicated, they ultimately crashed against the reality, thereby forcing them to change their previous ultra-left, sectarian approach, dissected by Peter Hadden in his book. They therefore performed a volte-face – without in any way seeking to explain and openly correct their earlier mistaken analyses – and began to seek alliances with others on the left. This represented a switch in policies but not of method. Steel presents Tony Cliff, in contradistinction to the present leadership of the SWP, as an open and honest leader of the SWP who was prepared to welcome coalitions of a principled character in the building of their organisation.
However, those who worked more closely with Cliff over a long period within his organisation tell a different story. Their accounts show that while Cliff and thereby his organisation – educated in his method – were at one stage prepared to work in coalitions, they were also, if things did not go their way, prepared to smash them up, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. The late Jim Higgins, who worked as National Secretary of the International Socialists as they were then in the early 1970s, recounted what happened when the SWP worked successfully with and recruited groups of workers. He gives a picture of the internal regime of the organisation – which to say the least is not flattering:
“I remained for a while as National Secretary, until I became tired of meetings starting half an hour late so that Cliff and his young leaders could caucus and make all the decisions that were then presented to me at the formal session. Such childishly destructive behaviour was absurd and I resigned, taking up a job on Socialist Worker.
“Together with Duncan Hallas, Roger Protz (editor of Socialist Worker), Granville Williams, John Palmer and others we formed an IS Opposition. From the point of view of continuing employment this was an error, but not one I regret. Not too much time passed before Cliff and Harman had sufficiently wound up… journalists on Socialist Worker… to press for the sacking of myself and Roger Protz. As the EC had initiated the move, they did not waste too much time in debate before acceding to this request.
“The opposition debated the questions with Cliff at a number of regional aggregates and were hopeful of getting a substantial number of delegacies to the conference. These hopes came to nothing when the constitution was illegally changed making it impossible for us to achieve any more than a handful of delegacies.
“As part of the same ultra-leftism, a group of some 20 AUEW members were expelled in Birmingham. Their crime was twofold: support for the IS Opposition platform and disagreement with the running of an IS candidate in an AUEW election (I think for President). As experienced trade unionists of some service and standing they had worked in the broad left and the question of the candidate to support had been agreed long before IS thought to run its own man. Finding themselves unable to renege on commitments freely made, they were all expelled. The whole episode provides an object lesson that Cliff’s famously intuitive nose and some energetic young organisers are really no substitute for knowledge of the working-class movement… I do not think he understands the workers anywhere, he has met hardly any. His oft repeated dedication to the working class is in practice making much of those who happened to agree with him at any given time and then dropping them with a sickening thud as soon as they disagree.
“The IS Opposition was expelled and all in all some 250 people left with them. The years since then do not seem to have changed the nature of the group except that it is now allegedly a party and it is somewhat further from success than it was 20 years ago. Do I blame Cliff for most of this? Well actually I do.” [Jim Higgins, Speak One More Time – Selected Writings, Socialist Platform, 2005.]
Higgins himself, in his writings, displays a heavy dose of cynicism towards the SWP and others but still claimed to be a Trotskyist. This is not unusual in those who leave Marxist organisations – the “league of abandoned hopes”. Most times, it is best to ignore subsequent contributions from these quarters. However, if serious public criticisms are made – as they have been, for instance, against the Socialist Party or personally against the leaders of our organisation – particularly in a written form, then however reluctantly, we are compelled to answer, if only to prevent legends becoming ‘established facts’. We have also used any political or organisational disagreements as a means to clarify ideas, seeking always to raise the level of understanding of those who can be reached in such a discussion. Marx was compelled to reply to serious slanders, made by Vogt, for instance, in the nineteenth century, which distracted him from more important work on the development of his theory at that stage. The problem with the defenders of Cliff against Higgins is that the charges levelled here against him chime with the very same experiences, sometimes at the hands of the heirs of Cliff today.
Liverpool victory – ‘Sold down the Mersey’?
The history of this organisation is a zigzag from one incorrect policy to another, from opportunism to ultra-leftism and back in a dizzying fashion. When Militant pursued a very successful broad left approach that resulted in the most spectacular victories for Marxism, namely in Liverpool, the SWP were found on the other side of the barricades. Socialist Worker, notoriously, after the victory of June 1984 had a banner headline ‘Sold down the Mersey’. This was after the defeat and humiliation of Thatcher, in a victory for the Liverpool working class that was hailed in the city and nationally by all serious forces on the left, They were totally isolated and were chased out of Liverpool town hall because the workers of the city – and particularly the council workers – were ecstatic at the gains that had been made through the stance on the ‘illegal budget’ and were contemptuous of the claims of the SWP.
At the time and since, they alleged – usually out of earshot of Militant supporters – that Liverpool council should have refused the concessions from the government, in order to maintain a ‘second front’ against the Tories with the miners. Liverpool’s ‘failure to do so’, it seems, contributed to the defeat of the strike, because the miners were left to fight alone. The reality, as we pointed out in our material both then and especially in the book by Ken Smith on the miners’ strike, was that the strike was defeated, in the main, because the right-wing leaders of the trade unions and the TUC failed to come to the assistance of the miners. The implication of the SWP’s criticisms of us is that the miners were betrayed in order that we would be able to hold on to our councillors’ positions in Liverpool. Let us recall that Liverpool city council compelled Thatcher to provide an extra £60 million to the city through mass struggle. If we had wished to preserve our positions, both councillors and MPs in Liverpool and Coventry, we would have capitulated in the Liverpool struggle as well as in the poll tax battle. Indeed, the recently deceased and much-loved Terry Fields, Broadgreen MP and Militant stalwart, would have undoubtedly preserved his position and his seat if he had capitulated and paid his poll tax, as many, even in the ranks of Militant (who subsequently left us) urged at the time.
Moreover, this feeling – that Liverpool let down the miners – is the opinion of the SWP and nobody else. No members of the NUM, either at the time or since, have reproached the Liverpool councillors for their actions. They invited Liverpool councillors to their galas in Kent in 1986 and Derek Hatton to the Durham miners’ gala the same year. Terry Fields invited Arthur Scargill to speak for him in Liverpool in 1983 and in 1987, as well as the late Pat Wall, Militant supporter and MP, in Bradford the same year. He spoke also for ‘old left’ Labour candidates in Liverpool after the alleged ‘betrayal’ of the miners had taken place. There was not a whiff of the SWP’s attitude in any other part of the labour movement. Indeed, their approach was more motivated by pique, combined with sheer spite, at the tremendous position which Militant had conquered in Liverpool through correct strategy and tactics. This approach underpins their attitude to all movements they do not manage to tightly control.
The essence of the tactics deployed by Militant in Liverpool was to forge a working-class coalition of considerable size, clearly defined as socialist in character but with a Marxist spine. Militant was the biggest organised group in the city – we had 1,200 involved supporters at its height in Merseyside alone and, for a time, a weekly regional paper, ‘Mersey Militant’. We had considerable influence in the unions but we were nevertheless a minority in the council. Yet the tactics of the Marxists were widely embraced at all stages of the struggle including in the big confrontations with the government. Why? Because with great care and skill, Militant managed to take the widest possible spectrum of left opinion with us on a principled basis – and for a while, even those who had previously stood on the right. The tactics employed in the District Labour Party, the individual Labour parties, in the unions and in the council group itself were backed up by mass struggle. A similar approach was adopted in the anti-poll tax movement – which we will comment on later – which resulted not only in another defeat for Thatcher but her ignominious departure from the political scene.
The SWP have never occupied such a powerful position – able to determine the course of an important, specifically working-class mass struggle – as did Militant in the epic Liverpool battles 1983-87, as well as in the battle against the poll tax. It is true that they have occupied a leading position in the broad Stop the War Coalition (StWC) in Britain. This body played an important role in calling the demonstration in 2003 when two million people came out onto the streets. The Socialist Party also participated in this organisation as a minority, invariably clashing with the SWP, who once in a position like this, veered towards the right, accommodating to, in particular, middle-class Muslims and the liberal democrats at the height of the antiwar mood.
On Stop the War platforms, they did not usually speak as members of the SWP. But they denied others, like the Socialist Party, a chance to speak, partly because they wished to maintain a ‘broad, consensual’ approach, but also because they believed a political and class analysis of the war would alienate the non-socialist anti-war ‘luminaries’. Accordingly, a great opportunity to raise the level of understanding was lost. On the day of the great march against the war, 15 February 2003, the meeting in Hyde Park saw Charles Kennedy, then Liberal Democrat leader, speak whereas representatives of ‘Youth Against the War’ were denied even a short contribution. Kennedy was allowed to adopt the pose of an anti-war ‘fighter’, although once the war began, the Lib Dems adopted a quiescent, parliamentary, fake ‘opposition’, supporting ‘our troops’. Youth Against the War, initiated by the Socialist Party, on the other hand, organised in Britain perhaps the most important anti-war action in the school students’ strike on ‘Day X’, the day of the invasion of Iraq.
The SWP’s opportunist adaptation to the non-socialist wing of the anti-war movement was invariably combined with an incorrect, ultra-left approach to the so-called ‘Iraqi resistance’. The Socialist Party fully supported the right of the Iraqi people, with arms if they so chose, to resist the Bush-Blair invasion of their country. But this did not extend to giving general support to all parts of the so-called Iraqi ‘resistance’. Unfortunately, this was the position adopted by the SWP, which in the beginning featured in some of the proposed public statements of the Coalition. On one occasion, they committed the blunder of composing a press statement in which they gave ‘unconditional support to the Iraqi resistance’. In this ‘resistance’ were openly sectarian forces, including al-Qa’ida, with which the StWC would have been associated if this press statement was seen as its position. This would have been a gift to the opponents of the anti-war movement, above all for the right wing of the trade union movement. Therefore, Ken Smith, then the representative of the Socialist Party on its committee, urgently contacted StWC’s officers urging that the press statement be withdrawn and amended. The officers agreed with the arguments of Ken and changed the statement. But unfortunately, in the meantime, it had got into the hands of those opponents of the StWC within the trade unions, who sought to use it against the anti-war movement as a whole.
This was just one instance of the one-sided view of the SWP in their approach to the Iraq war. The tasks for the anti-war movement are to oppose imperialism, give full support for the rights of the Iraqi people to resist the invasion, but without giving political support to the sectarian forces – Shia, Sunni or others – which could only compound the problems of the Iraqi people. One of the purposes of socialists and Marxists, therefore, in this situation is to support progressive forces – particularly in the much weakened trade unions, which are important for the future. Out of the ashes of the catastrophe of Iraq, only a united working-class movement and organisations offer hope for the future.
How could the war have been stopped?
Mark Steel made a telling criticism, which the Socialist Party had previously made, over the methods which the SWP took into the Stop the War Coalition. He wrote:
“As the massive anti-war march receded into the past, relating to those people who went on it became more complex. The most typical attitude seemed to be that while no one regretted going on the march, they couldn’t see that it had made any difference. But instead of analysing how to address this sentiment, the SWP seemed to repeat the tone that suited the frenetic weeks before the war. Every march and protest was depicted as a triumph. And there was no acknowledgement of the process in which Stop the War meetings and rallies became smaller, and almost devoid of anyone under forty.” [Mark Steel, ibid.]
We participated fully in the work and activity of the coalition’s executive committee. We criticised the bald ‘pro-Muslim’ position and emphasized the need for a clearly rounded out class position. We also tried to inject a sense of proportion into the prospects for the antiwar movement, particularly in the period after the invasion. The rhythm is bound to vary in a protracted struggle, as the anti-war movement is. Moreover, this movement – as colossal as it was in bringing millions onto the streets – had not ‘stopped the war’.
The weight of numbers on the streets alone was not capable of forcing Bush and Blair to step back from the precipice before the war began. True, Blair, as was subsequently admitted in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, came very close to the edge of resigning because of the massive two million strong demonstration of February 2003. But even then, this was no guarantee that the war would be stopped. The fundamental interests of the most powerful capitalist state on the planet, and particularly its ‘executive committee’, the US government of Bush, was determined to crush the Saddam regime and grab Iraq’s huge oil deposits. Only a massive working-class revolt, possibly including industrial action worldwide had the chance of achieving these aims – and even that would not be guaranteed to stop the war. Over a period of time, however, US imperialism would be defeated. The task was to utilise the political opportunities of the anti-war movement to drive home the character of war and imperialism, and link this to a change in society.
But this was not enough for the SWP, who lack any sense of proportion and have little understanding of the different stages of the struggle, as well as the changing psychology of young people and workers towards the war. In vain did Socialist Party members on the committee argue that one demonstration after another would not achieve the objectives of the movement. Mark Steel now agrees, unfortunately a little late, with the Socialist Party’s approach.
Anti-capitalist movement and the programme
The Socialist Workers Party’s increasingly opportunist turn in this century has been accompanied by an exaggeration of the importance and the scale of practically every social movement that has taken place in the last decade. For instance, the first stirrings of revolt in the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation movement was hailed as a “decisive breakthrough”. Alex Callinicos, in a major article in 2001, gave a theoretical underpinning to the new developments that had taken place. Like Ralph Nader, the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle in 1999 was hailed by Callinicos as a “fork in the road”. To some extent, this was true but this movement – engaging as it did new layers particularly of young people – while significant did not, except in Italy, perhaps, touch broad, decisive sections of the working class, either in America or Europe.
He also wrote favourably and uncritically about other radical anti-capitalist figures, ascribing to them qualities they did not possess. He wrote in 2001:
“Reporting on the protests in Prague, Boris Kagarlitsky wrote: ‘Walden Bello is like Lenin in October. Since the demonstrations in Seattle, he has been transformed from an academic into a real leader.” In truth, Bello has a little way to go before he becomes another Lenin. But undoubtedly the role he now plays is that of an activist making a directed political intervention, not an academic reading a seminar paper. This is true also of Bourdieu… What this amounts to is the birth of a new left on an international scale. The fact remains that this is the greatest opening for the left since the 1960s.’ [Alex Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left, 2001]
It was correct to greet this movement and to participate in it, which the CWI and its national sections did. However, unlike the SWP, we did not dignify the main spokespersons of this movement in such organisations as ATTAC (‘Association pour la Taxation des Transactions pour l’Aide aux Citoyens’ – Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), for instance – with a more politically advanced position than they actually had. In fact, most were not so much ‘anti-capitalist’ as ‘anti-corporate’ – in the case of Ralph Nader, or anti-neoliberal capitalism. Most were searching for a more ‘democratic’ alternative within the framework of capitalism.
Typical were those such as Susan George, who stated at the time: “I regret that I must confess that I no longer know what ‘overthrowing capitalism’ means at the beginning of the 21st century.” She then goes on to express the overwhelming mood of the ‘intellectuals’ – some of whom were moving against neo-liberal capitalism – when she expresses the fear of mass upheaval, revolution, as a result of capitalism’s crisis. She says:
“Perhaps we are going to witness what the philosopher Paul Virilio has called ‘the global accident’. If it happens, it will certainly be accompanied by immense human suffering. If all the financial markets and all the stock exchanges collapsed at the same time, millions of people would find themselves back on the dole, bank failures would massively exceed the capacity of governments to prevent catastrophes, insecurity and crime would become the norm and we would be plunged into the Hobbesian hell of the war of all against all. Call me a ‘reformist’ if you like, but I don’t want such a future any more than the neo-liberal future.” [Susan George, Que faire à présent?, text for the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, 15 January 2001.]
Susan George anticipated, without fully understanding why, what is actually unfolding in the world economy at the present time. These developments are inevitable given the inherent contradictions of capitalism and particularly the features of ‘financialisation’ we have witnessed in the last 20 years. The ‘Hobbesian hell’ she mentions is integral to modern capitalism, and can no more be wished away by Susan George and her ilk than the economic witch-doctors of capitalism. In the light of her statements, detailed by Callinicos in his article, one would expect a Marxist critique. However he meekly declares: “It would be a big mistake, however, to see remarks such as these as the expression of a settled reformist position.” He then simply declares in relation to her and others: “Nevertheless, what we are seeing is the emergence of an increasingly influential group of intellectuals who see themselves as engaging in a political struggle against global capitalism.” That is it! No arguments, criticism, preparation of his own members by subjecting Susan George’s clearly reformist ideas to the political microscope and criticism.
A similar approach is revealed by Callinicos in his polemic against their former IST affiliate, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the US. He criticised them for ultra-leftism towards Ralph Nader by quoting a pro-SWP member in the ISO:
“The only people criticising Nader were hopeless sectarians or apologists for Gore!” [Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left.]
In the 2000 presidential election campaign, our US comrades were the first to recognise the significance of Nader’s campaign and the importance of intervening in this. But while calling for a Nader vote, we never advocated dropping our independent positions and we did subject him to friendly but firm criticism, particularly on the need for a new mass party separate from the Democrats. Callinicos links this to the adoption of “new methods of working [which] are now required. In particular, systematic use of the united front approach developed by the Bolsheviks and the Communist International during its early years (1918-23) is of crucial importance in relating to the new political milieux.” [Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left.]
This is an exaggeration, as we have shown earlier because a united front-type work in this period comprises an ‘element’ and not the full-blown tactics which, of right, apply to mass parties. Moreover, in the hands of the SWP it is applied in a one-sided fashion. Lenin and Trotsky never conceived the ‘united front’ as a kind of non-aggression pact between Marxists, reformist or centrist leaders and organisations that were compelled by the pressure of the masses to engage in such formations. The united front has a twofold purpose: to mobilise the maximum strength and organisation of the working class, while at the same time giving the opportunity for the ideas and programme of Marxism to be tested out before audiences, which to begin with are not necessarily favourable to socialist or Marxist ideas.
The SWP’s interpretation of this tactic in was expressed most starkly in their late intervention in Italy, particularly in relation to the phenomenon of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC). They welcomed spokespersons of the PRC to their annual event ‘Marxism’, such as the leader of the party Fausto Bertinotti, who received a big reception there. But Bertinotti and others who spoke for the PRC were never criticised, even by implication, when it was quite clear that he was already shifting towards the right. They also organised within the PRC in Italy a small organisation ‘Communism of the Base’, composed mostly of young people, which lasted for a short period and then disappeared.
Trotsky criticised on programme
In Italy, when the IST intervened in the huge Genoa anti-capitalist demonstration of 2001, their main slogan was “Another world is possible”. They did not even attempt to spell out to those who were present what type of ‘another world’ was needed and whether it could be achieved. We argued that this ‘another world’ was for us a socialist one and outlined programmatically and organisationally how to build such a movement which could achieve that goal. Bob Labi, who participated in the demonstration, made the following comment about some of the participating IST contingents. He writes:
“In Genoa, some of the IST slogans were actually liberal. Their Irish contingent had a placard calling for ‘Fair trade not free trade’, a utopian demand under capitalism that, in reality, implies asking for a ‘nicer’ capitalism. When challenged on this slogan one of their Irish leaders replied, ‘Why can’t you enjoy this wonderful event? Look how many people are here, don’t spoil it.'”
Bob went on to write about the German contingent:
“The German IST grouping Linksruck (‘Left Shift’) [the Left party did not yet exist] produced a special nine-page briefing… ‘A different world is possible! Info briefing for the G8 summit protests in Genoa’ for their members. This document, while stressing building an anti-capitalist movement with strong local roots, did not raise the question of how to develop this movement into a socialist one. In fact the word ‘socialist’ is not used anywhere in the briefing.” [‘SWP opportunism in the anti-capitalist movement’, Socialist Party Members Bulletin 42, September 2001.]
The programme for this movement, as well as the slogans and the agitation derived from it, while reflecting the objective needs of the working class, for Marxists should always relate to the existing level of consciousness of those we are trying to reach. This is absent, however, from all their interventions. This arises, in turn, from their lack of a theoretical grasp of a Marxist/Trotskyist approach on the need and use of transitional demands. This flows from the approach of their founder Cliff himself. He had maintained, in relation to Trotsky’s ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism – the Transitional Programme’, that after Trotsky was assassinated by the Stalinists, it was no longer relevant. He stated:
“The basic assumption behind Trotsky’s transitional demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption, the ground fell from beneath the programme.” [Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, p. 300.]
A collaborator of Cliff, the late Duncan Hallas, also argued that the perspective reflected in the transitional programme “made sober and realistic assessment of actual shifts in working-class consciousness, alterations in the balance of class forces, and tactical changes to gain the maximum advantage from them. [The Essence of Lenin’s Critical Practice] was extremely difficult for Trotsky’s followers.”
Both Cliff and Hallas’s charges would be correct if – particularly during the boom of 1950 to 1973 – Trotsky’s programme was interpreted in a lifeless, mechanical fashion. The objective situation facing capitalism in the 1930s did pose the question of struggles for reforms challenging the very foundations of the system. A serious struggle for reform inevitably came up against the resistance of the system as a whole and its representatives. However, in the post-1945 period, with the political sell-out of social democracy and Stalinism laying the basis for the economic revival of capitalism, some of the demands in the transitional programme were pushed into the background, some of them not being immediately applicable. For instance, ultra-left sectarians still repeated mechanically (like the now-defunct Workers’ Revolutionary Party) Trotsky’s demand for ‘shop committees’. In reality, however, these ‘shop committees’ already existed in the main branches of British industry in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s in the form of powerful shop stewards’ organisations. Trade union membership rose to an unprecedented 55% of the workforce and was much higher in some other countries of Europe.
This was something Lenin had never envisaged; he argued in his pamphlet ‘Left-wing Communism’ that trade union membership would not reach on average more than a quarter, at most one third, of the labour force because of the colossal pressure of capitalism, the persecution of trade union militants and divisive anti-union measures of the bosses. But Lenin could not have envisaged the kind of explosive boom which developed in the post-Second World War period, which massively strengthened the confidence and, therefore, the organisations of the working class.
But that period of 1950-73, although pictured as ‘eternal’ at the time, was a unique and, moreover, exceptional period (although of fairly long duration) in the development of capitalism. Under the whip of neo-liberalism in the last 30 years, capitalism has returned to its ‘normal’ features. The transitional programme – if still not all the demands in this programme – therefore has big relevance today. Even Cliff, it seems, when reality struck him on the nose, was compelled to recognise this when he declared:
“Capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer expanding… So the words of Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme that ‘there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards’ fits reality again.” [Tony Cliff, Trotskyism after Trotsky.]
Yet the same Cliff, as we have seen, declared earlier that “when life disproves the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme”.
You pays your money and you takes your choice! This is symptomatic of the methods upon which this organisation has been built. What is vital in Trotsky’s pamphlet is not just the demands but the method of analysis, which takes into account the stages through which capitalism and thereby the working class is passing, and seeks to fit the programme into this. To merely mechanically repeat programmes and demands apposite for one period in another changed situation is ludicrous.
Nevertheless, the method by which Trotsky elaborated this programme, taking all the factors into account is crucial for preparing the new generation to wrestle with and solve the problems posed by the new situations that are opening up.
Cliff’s light-minded dismissal of the transitional programme and method at one stage only to then belatedly embrace it is responsible for the miseducation of his present heirs. Historically, the SWP/IST has, in effect, used the method of the ‘maximum and minimum’ programme – the hallmark of the pre-First World War social democracy in its approach to political work. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, recognised that the new period ushered in by the First World War, where the productive forces had outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state and private ownership, meant that the struggle for each and every reform came up against the limits of the system. This was the method of the Bolsheviks – enunciated in such priceless little works as Lenin’s ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to avoid it’. The same approach informed Trotsky and the International Left Opposition in the development of the transitional programme.
Revolution: slogans and programme
The SWP, even in its recent opportunist phase, will often shout for ‘revolution’ but in their day-to-day activity, they limit their slogans to demands like ‘tax the rich’. Even when they call for the ‘maximum’ of ‘revolution’, it has an empty, abstract character and is not accompanied in the main by any programme as a bridge to the idea of ‘revolution’. An absolute necessity today following the last 30 years of neo-liberal, capitalist triumphalism is to begin to rehabilitate socialism by linking the day-to-day demands and experiences of the working class with the idea of a new social system. We should seek to do this in the most attractive language possible for the new generation. An illustration of the method of the SWP in this regard is provided by the SWP pamphlet ‘The IMF, globalisation and resistance’ published in September 2000. Bob Labi made the point that the pamphlet gives “a mass of good anti-capitalist facts and figures, but not a single hint of what is the alternative to capitalism. In this pamphlet there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of any kind of socialist alternative. Anyone looking for a programme that goes beyond simply calls for ‘protests’ or appeals to ‘take on the IMF’ would find nothing at all. In reality this type of approach is an attempt to curry favour with the newest activists by downplaying political differences. The SWP may hope that by this tactic they can easily win initial support.” [‘SWP opportunism in the anti-capitalist movement’.]
This method also illustrates an inability to conduct a real dialogue, as opposed to sloganising, with others in the workers’ movement. Of course, great care has to be exercised – even now, when we are just emerging from the neo-liberalism of the last 20 years – in explaining what we mean by socialism. But the tasks of Marxists are essentially the same as sketched out by Marx and Engels in the ‘Communist Manifesto’: “In the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” We start from the existing consciousness but attempt through demands and the experience of the working class to pose the socialist alternative. The SWP/IST actually resists this approach. In fact, of late they have characterised such demands as the equation of “ultra-leftism”.
Following the collapse of Bear Stearns, the SWP-Left List candidate for London mayor, Lindsey German, put out the following statement:
“The collapse of one of the world’s largest banks shows just how shaky the financial system really is. Yet New Labour and Ken Livingstone have cheered on the speculators who’ve put the whole economy at risk. Livingstone calls the City gamblers the ‘cutting edge of world business’. He wants non-dom tax exiles in London to continue paying no tax. The Left List is the only party in these elections that will stand up to the financial speculators and big business. We’re calling for a tough new regulator for the City’s gamblers, replacing the toothless Financial Services Authority. And we want a clampdown on tax avoidance by the fat cats – now costing the UK at least £97 billion a year. London’s wealth should be used to benefit all of London, not just the super-rich.” [Lindsey German, Left Alternative Website, 18 March 2008.]
This programme is no different to what practically every capitalist commentator clamoured for during the 2008 financial meltdown. In fact, Brown and Darling went further than the SWP! No call for nationalisation of the banks and finance houses, as the Socialist Party has done consistently, never mind a call for socialist, democratic planning.
Attitude to the Labour Party and the Left
The IST and Germany in the early 1990s
To many who experienced the past sectarian behaviour of the SWP combined with abstract propaganda – ‘One solution, revolution!’ – the seeming metamorphosis to a ‘broad’ approach in this decade was a revelation. But not for the Socialist Party or the CWI, who had witnessed similar zigzags in Britain and in other countries, even in the 1990s. For instance, in the middle of 1994, the German sister organisation of the SWP, Sozialistischen Arbeitergruppe (Socialist Workers’ Group – SAG) participated in the youth section of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Jusos. According to their members, this abrupt turn was implemented after a direct order from Tony Cliff himself. His German followers closed their paper with a letter from the editor saying it was no longer to be published. There was no explanation of what had happened to their ‘open’ organization, the SAG. They merely announced the start of a new magazine, ‘Sozialismus von unten’ (Socialism from below), which, they claimed, was “politically independent” and not a “party organ”.
The SAG entered the Jusos as individual members and practiced there what the late Ernest Mandel had advocated for the Trotskyist movement in the past, a kind of ‘deep entrism’ into the mass parties of the working class. This meant, in effect, hiding the real programme of Marxism. It resulted sometimes in Trotskyists blocking with left reformists in a semi-permanent or permanent bloc on three or four demands. His followers in Britain pursued something similar in collaboration with the ‘Tribune’ left. In the 1960s, they published a journal ‘The Week’ – somewhat cruelly described by their opponents as ‘The Weak’. None of these efforts met with the kind of success of Militant, which implacably defended a Marxist programme, sometimes against the left.
The SWP tried to hide the fact that it acted collectively within the framework of the Jusos, building a loose network of Jusos activists called ‘Linksruck’ (‘swing to the left’) and published a Jusos magazine of that name. The Jusos at this stage was an active youth organization with several thousand activists, criticizing the SPD leaders from the left. But they had been strongly affected by the shift to the right of the SPD in the previous years. In fact, in Germany, even at that stage, the most radicalized youth would not think of joining the youth organisation of the SPD and no fresh layers moved into this organization.
Their work in Germany in this respect was a caricature of the successful policy of the work within the social democracy that Militant had pursued earlier over a long period. This was at a time, it must be added, when the SWP and its predecessors adopted an ultra-left position towards a mass party, the Labour Party, that was still a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. Their mantra in Germany was: “If all the left was in the SPD, we could easily change its course.” In contrast to the policy it presently puts forward in Die Linke (Left party) in Germany, it then stated:
“The SPD has two big advantages to the PDS [which subsequently merged with the WASG into Die Linke]. It is not a pure ‘East’ party but a whole German party and it is in the East and the West a political authority for workers. If the SPD were to take the lead of the movement against Kohl instead of tolerating its government, as it has until now, the PDS would have no chance and would vanish soon. Let’s do it.”
It said of the PDS:
“It… drew support from the army of unemployed in the East. There is little support among industrial workers for the PDS and it is fairly committed to the market.”
This is at a time when the PDS was increasing its total share of the vote, a reflection of the revulsion felt at an early stage at the introduction of capitalism into the former East Germany. As the CWI’s German section, the SAV, commented at the time: “Even the capitalist media recognise the significance of the PDS vote but not the ex-SAG.” Currently the SWP’s co-thinkers in Germany sing an entirely different tune towards the PDS/Left party. However, their adaptation to the Jusos and the SPD in the 1990s mirrors their similar opportunist approach towards Die Linke today. Superficially, they gained from the Jusos turn but only at the cost of miseducating their members. Moreover, their evolution in Germany was also in anticipation of how they developed towards ‘alliances’ and co-operation with other groups in the last period.
SWP and the Labour Party
The SWP was extremely muddled on the character of the Labour Party, even when they were formally in the party in the early 1960s. Yet the Labour Party was then essentially what it had always been from its inception, a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. As we have seen from their characterisation of the 1970s and 1980s as a ‘downturn,’ the SWP believed nothing could be expected from work in the Labour Party in the whole period of the 1970s. Far more ‘fruitful’ was their concentration on students and radicalised middle-class layers. But Militant, through patient, diligent and principled work demonstrated the viability, from a working-class and Marxist point of view, that at its base the Labour Party remained in this period a workers’ party, albeit still dominated by a pro-capitalist leadership. Moreover, events would act to transform the party, thereby creating big opportunities for socialists and Marxists if they knew how to work in this milieu. We built a force that far exceeded anything that the SWP had, then or subsequently, both in numbers but particularly in its political and social weight, which was reflected both within the Labour Party, particularly its youth wing, and also in the unions.
On two occasions in the 1980s, the SWP wrote open letters to Militant – at the height of our influence – requesting discussions with a “view to unity”. We never took up those invitations at that stage because the differences were too great. When the situation changed in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism, we approached the SWP and many other groups with a view to discussions in order to clarify ideas in the changed situation and the way forward. However, we and others were met with a brick wall; the SWP was bristling with confidence and not a little arrogance, clearly believing they represented the ‘future’ of the left. However, events compelled them ultimately to discuss with others on the left, including us, towards the end of the 1990s.
But this was not undertaken in the spirit of open discussion, debate and trying, while recognising that there were political differences, to arrive at common points of agreement. They were largely concerned on how to enhance their own position. All parties and groups seek to build political support for their ideas. But one of the ways to achieve this is by engaging in discussion and being prepared to take up criticisms and arguments levelled against your policies when the situation requires. The Socialist Party in England and Wales has consistently invited them to debate at our annual event, ‘Socialism’. On two occasions, they did attend in the early days of the Socialist Alliance. But they have never reciprocated by inviting us to speak at their event, ‘Marxism’. Moreover, when we invited them to Socialism recently this was their reply:
“Thank you for your invitation to speak at the Socialism 2006 event in November. I am sorry that we will not be able to attend. In solidarity, Candy Udwin, SWP National Office.”
However, following their recent crisis, the SWP has now expressed an interest in speaking at ‘Socialism 2008’, which we welcome. It remains to be seen, however, whether the SWP leadership has really changed their methods.
From the time that the SWP fully entered the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales in 1999, rather than this leading to a comradely collaborative approach on the part of those involved, a period of intense bickering, not to say bitter conflict, broke out within its ranks. The entire responsibility for this rested on the shoulders of the SWP and their allies – some of them very temporary indeed – whose political and organisational approach was doomed to failure from the outset, as the Socialist Party consistently argued.
Faced with their failure to correctly estimate the character of the 1990s and the adoption of a linear tactic of building through frenetic activity – which inevitably produced a large turnover of members – the SWP engaged with the Socialist Alliance. But this was with a determination to take it over and bludgeon aside by force of numbers all of those who seriously opposed them, particularly the Socialist Party. It was not just ourselves but other independent campaigners who opposed Labour on the electoral front who they tried to dismiss out of hand; for instance, the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation which stood in the 2000 Greater London Assembly Elections.
The same approach was shown by the Hackney Socialist Alliance, at the behest of the SWP, to stand against an anti-cuts candidate supported by 27 Hackney Council shop stewards and convenors in a council by-election in 2001. One of those who supported the SWP’s approach – Mike Marquese – was soon to depart from the Socialist Alliance but supported the SWP here. He justified this stance, as did the SWP: “The Socialist Alliance itself was a much broader forum and a numerically larger base.” Therefore, a group of trade unionists moving against Labour who could with a skilful and friendly approach be drawn into the ranks of a broader alliance were alienated. The SWP also adopted a hostile attitude to the Kidderminster hospital campaign, which made a serious and successful electoral challenge to New Labour despite the political outlook of its leadership. Although not distinctly on the left, this represented a serious break from Labour and opened up the potential for an alternative broad electoral front.
This top-down approach of the SWP leadership, we said at the time, was “repeating the worst mistakes of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party”. The Socialist Alliance was a small force, which in the general election in England averaged only 1.7% of the vote in 92 seats in 2001. This included the very good votes for Dave Nellist in Coventry (7.08%) and Neil Thompson in St Helens, a firefighter-supported candidate, with 6.8%. The Socialist Alliance was therefore a modest force that was electorally striving for credibility and relevance. Yet the SWP were hell-bent on a centralist and exclusive approach, something that even a mass party in its first stages, in Britain in particular, would not adopt.
We gave the example many times of the attitude of Keir Hardie at the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which led to the formation of the Labour Party. He argued what the structure of this new organisation should ensure:
“Each of the affiliated organisations would be left free to select its own candidates without let or hindrance, the one condition being that, when returned to Parliament, the candidate should agree to form one of the Labour Group there, and act in harmony with its decisions. In this way they would avoid the scandal which in the past had pained earnest men on both sides, of seeing trade unionists opposing socialists, and vice versa.” [Max Beer, ‘A History of British Socialism, p328]
This very good advice of Hardie for what was the beginning of a mass force – which the Socialist Alliance was not and could not be at that stage – was just ‘history’ to the SWP. They insisted on a centralised approach more akin to a party, while at the same time arguing against the idea of setting up a party – which they also did in relation to Respect. This was done in order to ensure that the votes of the SWP held sway on crucial issues of policy and organisation. This, as we argued at the time, was a formula, like with the SLP, for another failed attempt to bring the left together in order to prepare the basis for something larger at a later stage. In particular, the SWP wished to impose their election candidates, both SWP members and supporters, particularly aimed to wipe out the Socialist Party, which had built up an electoral position previous to this in Coventry and Lewisham but also elsewhere.
They consciously distorted the Socialist Party’s arguments for an inclusive rather than their exclusive approach. In Socialist Worker, they gave this as an example of “a minority [who] have argued the Socialist Alliance should concentrate on standing single-issue candidates even if it means dropping talk of socialism”. On the contrary, we argued forcefully for the Socialist Alliance to formulate transitional demands linked to the idea of socialist change. But at the same time, it would be possible – and still is – to encompass ‘single-issue’ campaigns who were prepared to stand against New Labour in an electoral front; for instance, on an anti-cuts platform. Gradually, they could then be drawn into the ranks of an alliance and ultimately a party.
In answer to this argument, Dave Nellist wrote a letter to a prominent Socialist Alliance leader at the time – who was also destined to break with the SWP later – who supported their unitary approach:
“The Alliance helped [the former] council workers in Tameside stand candidates two years ago. The SSP [with the SWP having merged with this party in Scotland] has announced it is not standing in a by-election to the Scottish parliament to allow a health campaign space to stand a candidate; I stood aside in Coventry North-West to allow Christine Oddy to stand against Geoffrey Robinson [New Labour MP], which was for the last couple of years our preferred seat in Coventry. Why does Hackney Socialist Alliance feel there is no space that could have been left that would have brought these council workers into a wider orbit (by cross-endorsements of the two campaigns for example)?”
In the 2001 general election, the SWP and their allies were forced to concede that the Socialist Party would stand in seats where we had built up a local base (when they were boycotting standing in elections) long before they had come into the Socialist Alliance orbit. But this was only after a considerable struggle in which some of the allies of the SWP – with their tacit support behind the scenes – tried to ban paper sales of The Socialist in particular during the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) election campaigns. In an echo of the arguments that the right wing attempted to use in the Labour Party against Militant, they tried to impose ‘restrictions’, read ‘bans’, on the sale of papers of left-wing organisations. This was specifically aimed against the Socialist Party: “All participating parties, organisations, groups or individuals have the right to distribute or sell their own material at LSA events but no such activities shall take place while canvassing on behalf of the LSA.” Mike Marquese, then an ally of the SWP, stated: “To be honest, I opposed this practice [selling papers during canvassing and election campaigns] when I was in the Labour Party – though obviously I don’t think you should be expelled for it – and I oppose it in the SAs for the same reason.”
The selling of a socialist newspaper advocating agreed policies of the Socialist Alliance, as well as putting forward our own position, Marquese interpreted as an “abuse and discourtesy towards the punters on the doorstep”. On the contrary, the role of socialist newspapers – of course, on condition that their analysis and programme are clear – in no way undermines the effectiveness of an electoral battle. It combats hostile Tory capitalist propaganda and also allows those voting for a mass party to see the variation of ideas within the party.
At the same time, the SWP went to incredible lengths to prevent our supporters and members from becoming candidates, even where we had established a strong position. For instance, Pete Glover in Bootle has consistently chalked up the best election results of any candidate on Merseyside to the left of Labour. This did not prevent the SWP and their allies from trying to oust him as the candidate in the 2001 general election and replace him with Nigel Flanagan, then a member of the SWP. Subsequently, this individual defected from the SWP and from the left, and now occupies a position as a paid official on the right of Unison.
Socialist Alliance wrecked
At this time, the SWP were coming under attack for their methods outside the Socialist Alliance. For instance, in February 2001, they were compelled to reply to charges in their paper Socialist Worker over a headline: “Are the SWP the vampires?” This accusation was levelled against them by anarchists but the same accusations are often made by genuine activists and unaligned workers coming to the movement for the first time. Of course, the right wing Labourites and trade union leaders invariably invoke the epithet of ‘parasites’ on any movement in which Marxists participate. This is despite the fact that Marxists have often been pioneers, sometimes having joined the movement years, even decades, before those who level this charge. For instance, Tony Blair had only recently joined the Labour Party when he became part of its legal team that persecuted the five members of the Militant Editorial Board and helped to get them expelled in 1983. But it is a fact that the SWP arrogates to itself the predestined right of leading any movement. We totally disagree with arguments of the anarchists who eschew the key role of ‘leadership’ in which they participate. But the accusation against the SWP that it “has a long history of seizing on every new ‘issue’ or movement and trying to dominate it, recruiting who they can and moving on to the next big thing” was undoubtedly a hallmark of the SWP in the 1990s and remains the case today.
Of course Militant built and recruited from movements in which we participated. But this was not and is not our only ‘motivation’. Unless the level of understanding of those who participate in a struggle is raised, confidence instilled in those participating in a campaign, such ‘recruitment’ will be built on sand. Moreover, it should be achieved only on a principled basis. If there is not sufficient political support for your ideas, then you participate as a loyal minority. This approach is entirely foreign to the SWP, as the history of the Socialist Alliance and Respect demonstrates.
The closed character of the Alliance, which became clearer and clearer in the aftermath of the 2001 general election, made it impossible for genuine socialist organisations to continue to participate within it. Contrary to the myth which the SWP and its cohorts have put forward, the Socialist Party did not arbitrarily break from the Socialist Alliance. We were forced out by the decision of the SWP to use its numerical support to impose a ‘centralised’ approach in place of the federal approach which existed, particularly over who would be candidates at local level. Under their proposals, local autonomy completely disappeared. True, a few ‘independents’ would be allowed to stand but this was at the ‘grace and favour’ of the SWP, and not as something that would naturally arise from a federal-type inclusive constitution.
At the same time, the SWP displayed a complete muddle as to what such a force as the Socialist Alliance would represent politically vis-à-vis New Labour. The SWP and many others on the left have maintained that the character of the Labour Party has not undergone a qualitative change. They therefore dispute our claim that the Labour Party has been bourgeoisified and is now a capitalist party. They argue that Blair and Brown are bad, but not ‘fundamentally’ so compared to previous Labour leaders. For them, the continued formal adherence of the trade union apparatus to New Labour is sufficient to underline their position. The fact that the masses have deserted this party – four million less voters than in 1997, an all-time low in Labour Party membership – is an “irrelevance” as far as they are concerned. The statement of Brown that Thatcher’s anti-union laws are untouchable under a “New Labour” government is of little significance to them.
Yet the statement of Brown should be a defining moment, in the trade unions’ relationship with his government and party. New Labour looked with disdain at the trade union link while its coffers were filled by big business. But now, the captains of industry have, in the main, swung over to Cameron with the prospect of a Tory victory in the general election. Brown and Co are therefore more dependent on trade union funding than even in the past, as individual membership has also slumped. Yet his statement embracing Thatcher’s anti-union position “forever” is the equivalent of the Liberal Party supporting the Taff Vale judgement’s attack on the trade unions at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was sufficient to push the trade union leaders at the time to break with the Liberals, albeit in a hesitant fashion, and move to create their own party, the Labour Party. The Labour Party was thus raised on the shoulders of the trade unions at the beginning of the 20th century.
So rotten is the present trade union leadership and apparatus that it is now unlikely that they will repeat this attitude towards New Labour. The Socialist Party has been crystal clear from the early 1990s that a new mass party, the basis for this, should be laid by demanding the complete disaffiliation of the trade unions from the Labour party and the creation of a new mass force. The break of the Fire Brigades’ Union and the RMT, together with the stand of the socialist left in the PCS, underline the correctness of this analysis.
While this was taking place, the SWP was swinging from one contradictory position to another. One of their allies against the Socialist Party, Liz Davies, formerly a leading Labour left, broke from the Socialist Alliance – after we had departed. In her letter of resignation from the Socialist Alliance, she says of the 2002 SWP conference: “In this report, SWP leaders are quoted as arguing that ‘reformists’ should remain inside the Labour Party – quite a different perspective from what was put to me by the same people when they asked me to join in 2000 and 2001”!
This is quite typical of the double bookkeeping of the SWP. Now faced with new developments and disintegration around the Labour Party, it is possible but not certain that they will do a volte-face and, as reality intrudes, ‘agree’ that the Labour Party is now a ‘bourgeois formation’.
Respect was formed by the SWP and its allies together with its main public figure George Galloway but on the basis of the conscious and arbitrary shipwreck of the Socialist Alliance by the SWP itself. No discussion, no democratic debate, merely a ‘pronuciamento’ by the SWP leadership. This confirmed everything we had said when we were compelled earlier to leave the Socialist Alliance. But it nevertheless came as a shock to those who remained after we were forced out.
In the period prior to this, at the height of the antiwar movement in Britain, the Socialist Party, with others, engaged in a discussion with George Galloway on the possibility of forming a new project to the left of Labour. Galloway seemed to be open to this, initiated perhaps through a mass rally in the Albert Hall. He remarked to Peter Taaffe and Dave Nellist in a meeting at Westminster that Militant had organised successful rallies there in the 1980s. But George Galloway subsequently did not implement this. He made serious mistakes in first of all placing exaggerated expectations in the ‘Labour left’ -Tony Benn and others – to prevent his expulsion from the Labour Party. We pointed out to him that the right wing was hell-bent on purging those who offered the slightest resistance to the Iraq war and their neo-liberal programme, never mind someone like George Galloway. Despite any other drawbacks he may have, he nevertheless courageously opposed New Labour, Blair and Bush, in the US, the latter’s own backyard, on the Iraq war.
Also, instead of utilising the magnificent two million-strong demonstration of 15 February 2003 against the war to call for a mass party – which Dave Nellist and Peter Taaffe urged on him – he, together with the SWP and a few other small groups, launched Respect in January 2004. Even then, we engaged in a discussion over the programme and policies of Respect, with a view to participating if agreement could be arrived at in this venture. But unfortunately, as with the Socialist Alliance, the same approach was adopted, both by the SWP and Galloway – exclusive not inclusive. Moreover, in an attempt to court Muslims in general, their programme made unacceptable concessions to communalism, as well as other deficiencies, which the Socialist Party pointed out. Despite this, if there had been some leeway for participation, with freedom to politically operate within Respect, it may have been possible for the collaboration of the Socialist Party and others to have been obtained. But this was not the case and, instead, Respect was formed on an even narrower basis, from the standpoint of the labour movement and socialism, let alone Marxism, than the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance.
‘Communalism’ or non-sectarian policies?
From the beginning, it had a pronounced, ‘communalist’ character. In the lexicon of Marxism, this describes parties that base themselves upon one ethnic group, particularly in a multinational/ethnic society or region. London is now one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the world. As the history of the labour movement demonstrates, great care has to be exercised in appealing to one section of society so as not to alienate the rest. This approach has marked out the CWI in situations of racial or national conflict such as in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. In all three countries, no other organisation has sought so consistently to unite workers on a class basis. However, this was not even the declared intention of Respect.
In fact, prior to this, the SWP, with George Galloway, the main public figure of Respect, had already moved to a position of uncritical support, not just of ‘oppressed Muslims’ in general, but of the ‘leaders’ of ‘Muslim organisations’. This was an integral part of their entirely one-sided analysis of the world situation, particularly since George W. Bush had come to power. Initially, the SWP was opposed to any criticism of al-Qaeda, at the time of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. This flowed from the mistaken belief that such organisations and their actions – mass terror, not just against American imperialism but the American people, including the working class – were ‘progressive’. We demonstrated – not ex post facto but at the time – that there was not an ounce of progressiveness in al-Qaeda, with its roots in Wahaabi Islam, which is retrogressive, anti-Shia and politically reactionary, anti-working class in short.
Their attack on the World Trade Center was an example of ‘mass’ terrorism, which Marxists opposed. We counterposed to this the mass mobilisation of the working class and the methods they employ in struggle, strikes, demonstrations and political argument, as a means of defeating capitalism. Previously, the SWP had not gone quite as far as this in their one-sided approach to movements in the neo-colonial world. But, having thrown in their lot, uncritically, with George Galloway in the formation of Respect, they were compelled to follow his ‘pro-Muslim’ evolution.
How not to overcome the ethnic-religious divide
Galloway was at least explicit in outlining clearly where he stood. In a letter from Respect to constituents for the 2004 European Assembly elections in London, he wrote:
“It is because I have spent my whole political life championing righteous Muslim causes that they want to silence me and I was expelled from the Labour Party. I was one of the pioneers of the pro-Palestinian work in the UK and the driving force behind the twinning of Dundee with Nablus in 1980, which saw the first Palestinian flag from a public building in the western world. I was the organiser of the National Lobby on Kashmir and hold Pakistan’s two highest civil awards; The Hilal-I-Quaid-I-Azam and the Hilal-I-Pakistan for ‘services to the restoration of democracy in Pakistan’ and ‘services to the people of Kashmir’ respectively. And from 1990 until now, I have been in the forefront in the defence of the people of Iraq from the onslaught of sanctions and war. I am currently Vice-President of the Stop the War Coalition which demands an end to the foreign occupations of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Throughout my political life, in parliament and on the streets, I have championed the causes of the Muslims. And now I have to ask you for your help.”
Prior to this, he gave unqualified support to Mohammed Sarwar MP. Because of the reduction in seats in Glasgow, where part of Galloway’s Kelvin seat would merge with Govan, which would have impacted upon Sarwar’s position, Galloway issued the following statement to his constituents:
“I won’t be standing as a candidate in that constituency because to do so would mean that I’d be contesting against Mohammed Sarwar (presently the Govan MP) who, as well as being a close friend, is Britain’s first Muslim MP. I introduced Sarwar to politics and I’m not going to do anything which might result in his removal, particularly if it allowed the SNP to take the seat.”
What is striking about this statement, implicitly endorsed by the SWP because they never criticised it at the time, is the emphasis on Muslims as a community. Mohammed Sarwar, who may be “Britain’s first Muslim MP”, was nevertheless still tied to New Labour. This party and government were and are carrying out the vicious war against predominantly Muslim workers and peasants in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, it is responsible for a real deterioration in living standards and conditions of Muslim workers. Imagine if the pioneers of the labour movement had acted like this in Liverpool or Glasgow, appealing to ‘Catholics’ as a ‘community’, and likewise to Protestants. This has been the hallmark of ethnically and religious-based parties. In the case of Northern Ireland, ‘nationalist’, parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), despite the inclusion of ‘social democratic’ in their name, is a religiously-based party. It remains the case even when these parties are tinged with an element of ‘radicalism’. The same applies to Sinn Fein, which was not averse to mentioning occasionally ‘socialism’ (in the past, not today because it has become more and more Blairite) but nevertheless was and is a sectarian organisation rooted in one section of the ‘community’.
The maxim ‘show me who your friends are and I’ll show you who you are’ is applicable in politics. For instance, Respect and the SWP – particularly through the Stop the War Coalition but also with Respect – were delighted when the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) gave selective support to Respect in the 2004 European elections. But in justifying this, MAB stated: “In the five regions where MAB specifically recommended Respect candidates… endorsing the Muslim bloc phenomena.” [MAB Press Release, ‘First Step in the Right Direction, 17 June, 2004.] But the same MAB also backed Ken Livingstone in London and hailed the Liberal Democrat local election gains “in high density Muslim areas”. They claimed this was because of the recommendations to “Muslim community by MAB”. As we commented in the June 2005 edition of Socialism Today:
“MAB’s aim is clear: to establish a ‘Muslim bloc’ to bargain for the ‘best deal for Muslims’ from any party, including pro-capitalist ones, rather than to join a drive for a new mass workers’ party that could address the needs of all sections of the working class. Respect, by portraying itself as ‘the party for Muslims’, unfortunately has not challenged this approach, which will advance neither the real interests of workers or Muslims nor aid the development of working-class unity.”
MAB, prior to the 2005 general election, also declared: “MAB urges Muslim voters to assess candidates by considering the main issues which affect Muslims as well as wider society in general and reflects their interests, regardless of party affiliation.” They also declared that, “Results at the urban and constituency level in the European elections show clearly the high potential influence of the Muslim bloc vote in any general elections.” Further: “The Muslim Association of Britain is delighted that a Muslim Lib-Dem candidate has been delivered to the European parliament in the north-west.”
Prior to this, in 2004, leaflets put out by Respect were almost solely on the war (including an eight-page newspaper). One leaflet they were pushing in London was almost exclusively aimed at Muslims. Out of five subheads, one is “Respect – the party for Muslims” and another is “George Galloway – a fighter for Muslims”. Moreover, they emphasise almost exclusively his role fighting for justice for the peoples of Palestine, Iraq, Bangladesh and Pakistan, at the same time emphasising that he was married (at the time) to a Palestinian doctor. He was also teetotal and had “strong religious principles about fighting injustice”.
This is not a generalised defence of all workers – something which should be the approach of all genuine socialists – but solely aimed at Muslims as Muslims, not at Muslim workers as part of a working-class ‘community’. Merely to tag on at the end, as Respect did, demands in relation to housing, education, social services, etc, is not enough, particularly in an ethnically polarised situation and society, which was the case after the attack on the Twin Towers, the Iraq war and Bush and Blair’s infamous ‘war on terror’. While it is absolutely necessary to defend Muslims from racist attacks, this should be done as part of a united campaign of all oppressed working class people, not on the basis of ethnicity but on class. Coventry Socialist Party did this in Dave Nellist’s highly successful council election campaign of 2008. The Merseyside Militants also did this when faced with the opposition of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – and at one stage, the heads of all religions in Liverpool – in the course of the Liverpool battle, as our comrades have done heroically in Northern Ireland over decades.
History has some answers
A short-term pandering to one section of the population on the basis of the misused concept of ‘community’, without a clearly defined class approach, is to widen the religious-ethnic divide not overcome it. The inevitability of the collapse of Respect was evident to those like us who observed and criticised their narrow appeal to ‘Muslims as Muslims’.
We fundamentally disagreed with the ‘communalist’ implications of their programmatic approach, directed towards Muslims. We were the first in Britain to clearly reject the notion of a programmatic adaptation to Muslims as one unified bloc. Our reasons were that this could be seen, and indeed was in the case of Respect, as ‘communalist’ – a term which the Socialist Party first used – in its approach. We were and are implacable in our defence of Muslims – including middle-class and even bourgeois layers – who have been subjected to racism and repression as a consequence of ‘Islamophobia’, one consequence of Blair and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. But at the same time, the main appeal for any emerging new left, socialist force must be to the working-class base in every ‘ethnic’ community.
The labour movement itself, in places like Liverpool and Glasgow – let alone Northern Ireland, where only the Socialist Party there has taken a consistent non-sectarian, class standpoint – since its emergence was compelled to confront the high priests of all religions, who wished to be the sole ‘shepherds’ of their flocks, not just on spiritual matters but on social issues as well. Through sometimes bitter political and class battles, the working class of all religions and none were persuaded to oppose the religious hierarchy, both at a city and national level, who sought to undermine the ideas of solidarity, class unity, socialism and struggle from penetrating their ranks. Even in the Liverpool struggle between 1983 and 1987, the opponents of Militant in Liverpool (see ‘Liverpool: The City that dared to fight’ and ‘The Rise of Militant) sometimes invoked the figure of the Pope against the Marxist ideas of Militant in the city, with little success, it should be added.
In the past, divisions between Catholics and Protestants were successfully exploited by the approach of the labour movement. As late as 1964 there were six ‘Protestant Party’ councillors in Liverpool, the last joining the Tories in 1974. However, a combination of factors in the post-1945 boom dissipated the poisonous fumes of sectarian hatred. Dispersal of the inner-city population to mixed areas in the suburbs during the boom was one factor. But there was also a growing consciousness that the religious conflicts of the past were secondary to the unity of the working class. When the Liberals in Liverpool stooped into the gutter, seeking to fan the flames of religious division, this was all to no avail; the working class instinctively understood that on the bread-and-butter, class issues they would judge who to support politically not the priests and bishops.
Invariably, in all social struggles, most of the hierarchy of all religions take the side of the rich and powerful at the expense of the interests of the working class and the poor. How to free the working class from the stultifying and harmful effect of religious divisions has been an issue that the labour movement wrestled with throughout the twentieth century and still does today.
The promotion of ‘faith schools’ by the Blair government and now continued by the Brown cabinet can enormously reinforce religious and ethnic divisions. The SWP, along with most of the middle-class left, in the NUT for instance, have gone along with this. Once the inevitable reaction against this widening of divisions in education occurs, they will probably claim they never adhered to this policy in the first place!
The local government elections of 2008 were a laboratory test for the different methods of the SWP/Respect on the one side, and the Socialist Party on the other. In the St Michael’s Ward in Coventry, Dave Nellist was elected once more as a Socialist Party councillor. But this was in the teeth of an attempt by mosque ‘elders’ – Bangladeshi Muslims in this case – to mobilise Muslims in his ward on a ‘communal’ basis – read religious loyalty first – in support of New Labour.
This failed, with many Muslims expressing their anger at the attempt to coral them into supporting a party, New Labour, which nationally and internationally, was against their interests, as shown in the bloody catastrophe of Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. They therefore supported and voted for Dave Nellist in considerable numbers alongside non-Muslims. This resulted in a splendid victory for socialist and class struggle policies and succeeded in raising the political consciousness of all workers, contributing to strengthening the working class in the city.
There were also attempts to ape the methods of the big parties in courting publicity and finance. For instance, one could read on the Respect website in 2004 a report of a fundraising benefit dubbed “An Audience with George Galloway”, which took place in Birmingham. There was also, of course, the unfortunate appearance of Galloway on ‘Big Brother’. George, in his agreement to participate in this ‘reality’ show, seemed to think that ‘all publicity was good publicity’, which may be the case for a pop star, but not for a serious political movement and its representatives. Faced with this clearly embarrassing situation, the solution of the SWP leaders was to remain shtum.
Mark Steel, who had criticised the internal political culture of the SWP, commented on “the damage caused by this lack of debate, firstly following the extraordinary episode of George Galloway’s nightly exploits on Celebrity Big Brother. Anyone associated with Respect faced a barrage of taunting or abuse from those around them. I don’t know of a single Respect supporter who came through that time unscathed, as many people who were sympathetic to George and the coalition felt let down, and withdrew their support. In those circumstances, you might assume there would be national discussion on how to deal with this, but instead there was none. Indeed, the national secretary of Respect, a leading SWP member, [John Rees] appeared on Newsnight to repeat the somewhat flimsy claim that the Big Brother escapade had been worthwhile because it had earned Respect a good deal of publicity.”
Clearly, Mark Steel, and many others in the ranks of the SWP, some less openly, believed that this bad ‘publicity’ further undermined Respect. Steel goes on to state:
“The irony is that many of the same people who are now angrily reciting the reasons for why we must distance ourselves from George Galloway, were then refusing to allow any discussion on why he should even be questioned.” [Mark Steel, ibid.]
The conflict between the SWP and the unified Respect was rooted in the opportunist character of this alliance, the kind of people it aimed to ‘recruit’ and how Respect was received by the ‘Muslim community’. For instance, the East London Advertiser, the local paper in Tower Hamlets, declared in March 2006, “Respect elder defects to Lib Dems after row”. It reported that a “senior Respect party official” had “defected to the Lib Dems, branding George Galloway a ‘clown’, just a month after praising him as a ‘noble statesman'”. The individual concerned, Doctor Shamsuddin Ahmed, formerly vice-chairman of Respect, left the party “after a row about which ward he could stand in for the Tower Hamlets council elections in May”. He said he was “‘disgusted’ the way Respect was being run by a clique from the Socialist Workers Party, and was now convinced the Lib Dems were the ‘natural party for people from ethnic backgrounds’. Ironically, immediately after Celebrity Big Brother, Dr Ahmed had told the Advertiser: “George Galloway is one of the noblest statesmen today and we have got absolute faith in the decency of the man.” This incident shows the inevitable unprincipled political ‘horse-trading’ – which has been a feature of Respect – that takes place when a party is founded in this way. In Tower Hamlets, since its inception there have been questions of ‘sharing out the spoils’ – council candidates – for a given ‘community’. Naturally, the opportunist Lib Dem group leader, Janet Ludlow, was reported as declaring that they were “considering selecting [the Respect defector] for Whitechapel”.
These kinds of political shenanigans are not, of course, the hallmark of Respect alone. With no fundamental differences between the main parties, political chicanery, switching from one party to another in order to seize the ‘main chance’ and individual advancement is not uncommon. But a new party – particularly a workers’ party – must break with such methods completely. However, even a mass workers’ party, encompassing broad layers, can still attract dubious elements, in its first period in particular. In order to avoid this as far as possible, it is always necessary to have clear class guidelines. MPs and other public representatives should receive no more than the wages of a skilled worker, expenses to be checked and the surplus to be donated to the labour movement. Respect had none of these guidelines.
The Tower Hamlets fiasco was a dress rehearsal for the even more damaging defection from Respect/SWP councillors following the split in 2007. Just one example of the carpetbaggers who hitched their wagons to Respect – when all other options failed – was the example of Shahid Mahmood, Respect candidate for a ward in Calderdale Metropolitan District Council. He had previously been a member of the Labour Party but explained: “I left and joined the Conservative party and after a year I was selected as a candidate for a ward. I came third in 2002.” Asked why he took the strange decision to join the Tory party, he replied: “I just thought I’d join to see how I could get on with them.”
These kind of people are not the bedrocks upon which can be constructed the firm foundations of either Respect or a new mass workers’ party. The SWP have occasionally indignantly ‘refuted’ the ‘communalist’ character of Respect, notably in their ‘internal’ party notes following the 2006 elections. They wrote: “The argument that Respect is a communal organisation is doing the rounds and has been taken up by the likes of Bob Crow.” But Bob Crow showed here a healthy suspicion and was correct in his criticisms of the SWP-dominated Respect.
Socialist Party vindicated
Our analysis and criticisms of Respect have been vindicated. This is why the SWP was so indignant at the time. They wrote: “The Socialist Party put up the following disgraceful statement on its website, ‘Respect declares that their twelve council seats in Tower Hamlets are “one more than the BNP in Barking and Dagenham”.'” This would be the cause of great celebration for the left as a whole if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme but instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously begin the further polarisation based on racial division.
Yet two years later, similar charges against Respect and George Galloway as we made then came from the SWP leadership which condemned us and Bob Crow for our earlier analysis. In 2006 they went on:
“We have to take these arguments up and should not be defensive in the slightest. These people consciously ignore the excellent results of comrades like Jerry Hicks in Bristol… Our candidates are not just Muslims – Oli Rahman, one of councillors, is a PCS activist.”
It is very sad for the SWP that this self-same Jerry Hicks defected to Galloway’s wing of Respect which the SWP now accused of ‘communalism’. Oli Rahman, held up as a militant not so long ago and not just a Muslim, has defected to New Labour!
The attempt of the SWP to present the split in Respect as a “left-right” issue is treated with thinly-disguised derision in labour and socialist circles. There was, as far as we know, a fundamental agreement between the two wings of Respect on its policies and programme. Galloway and his supporters are no more or less ‘communalist’ than they were when the SWP entirely subscribed to their programme. In reality, the split in Respect was at bottom a struggle over organisational methods, particularly over collaboration with other groups, over control of the ‘apparatus’ of Respect and of council candidates.
The SWP attacked Bob Crow on the grounds that ‘Abdul Sheikh, a councillor in Newham, is an ex-shop steward in Ford Dagenham, and two of our key candidates in Newham are RMT members (Bob Crow didn’t know this!. That may be because he didn’t look beyond our candidates’ ethnic/religious origin).” We don’t speak for Bob Crow, but the fact that Respect candidates may be shop stewards – and effective in the industrial struggle – and one is an ex-shop steward, is beside the point. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein candidates have sometimes had a history as shop stewards but we judge and criticise them not just on this but because they stood for a sectarian party, Sinn Fein, representing just one section of the ‘community’. This is a decisive question in judging political parties located in or seeking to represent the working class. Moreover, the leadership of the pre-split Respect, led by the SWP, took up an extremely arrogant approach towards any group moving towards independent political representation, and specifically the RMT. They demanded that the union did not contest the 2008 London assembly elections because Respect was standing!
The real reason at bottom for the split in Respect was pointed out once more by Mark Steel:
“This method of dealing with problems also seems to inform our relationships with activists from outside the SWP at national level. Whether in the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War, or Respect, we seem destined to land ourselves in acrimonious disputes. And the growing list of people who’ve selflessly committed themselves to a project alongside us, only to later lament that they feel betrayed and humiliated is one that, shall we say, needs addressing. I even found myself questioned at one point by the Central Committee, because after speaking at a number of Scottish Socialist Party events they considered I had become ‘Too friendly’ with Tommy Sheridan.” [Mark Steel, ibid.]
The SWP’s political opportunism and adaptation to the more difficult political terrain for socialists in the 1990s and early part of this century has been evident also in Scotland. The SWP belatedly joined the Scottish Socialist Party in 2001 two and a half years after it was launched and following the split in the SSP in 2006 joined Solidarity. However, from the beginning their aim was to fashion Solidarity into a “Scottish Respect”
At the first national conference of Solidarity in November 2006, the SWP used the conference to strongly argue against Solidarity being a socialist party. Instead, they advocated that Solidarity should be a “movement of the movements”, a home for those fighting Islamophobia, for the anti-war movement and for those opposing climate change. During the debate on the name of the party, one SWP member said: “Socialism should not be in the name; if we remove it people will join us”. The SWP voted for the name to be ‘Solidarity’, dropping the reference to ‘Scotland’s Socialist Movement’.
The SWP falsely argued that a socialist party would inevitably be narrow and isolated, whereas a movement that was “broad” and which concentrated on Islamophobia and the Iraq war would be far more appealing. The SWP’s arguments found no support outside their ranks. It was members of the International Socialists (CWI) who played the key role in defending the socialist orientation of Solidarity.
The SWP’s Scottish Committee, writing in the SWP’s pre-conference document in December 2007, complained bitterly that “it seemed at first that Tommy Sheridan shared our vision of the new party, would join us in building that new and very different type of organisation. But it became clear very quickly that he in fact backed the CWI in its campaign to control the new organisation and link it to its new project for a New Workers Party.” What they mean by this is the agreement between the CWI, Tommy Sheridan and the vast majority of Solidarity members that what was required was the building of a socialist party that sought to build its forces among the working class in Scotland.
Since then the SWP have played very little role in the building of Solidarity nor for that matter in the Defend Tommy Sheridan campaign, which held a very successful 250 strong rally in June 2008 and has widespread support among the working class and in the trade union movement in Scotland.
Undemocratic internal organisation
The political failings, together with the bureaucratic regime inside the SWP, were graphically underlined by the split that took place in 2007-08. The SWP summarily expelled Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoveman, long-term members of the SWP, as well as Nick Wrack, who left the Socialist Party in the 1990s. He had been a member of the SWP of only a few years’ standing. They had been critical of the SWP Central Committee’s handling of Respect but had not aired their differences outside the ranks of the SWP until disciplinary action was taken. Nick Wrack had been promoted by Galloway and his supporters as a ‘national organiser’, in opposition to John Rees, the National Secretary of Respect. The SWP came out against one of their own members – Nick Wrack – taking up this position. The fact that Nick Wrack was prepared to do this against the wishes of his own party does not enhance his reputation as one who is prepared to accede to what was presumably the democratic majority in the SWP. Nevertheless, to give him an ultimatum – ‘either withdraw from accepting the post or resign from the SWP’ – is incredible for a ‘revolutionary party’ allegedly based on ‘democratic centralism’.
In contrast, compare how he and his dissident views were handled within the Socialist Party. Nick Wrack played an important role in the ranks of Militant and the Socialist Party but left following differences over the change of our name from ‘Militant Labour’ to the ‘Socialist Party’, which involved questions on the character and tasks of Marxist parties in a new period. He was in a clear minority within our party. We tried to persuade him to maintain a role in the leadership – despite any differences – but he declined to do so. He subsequently left our ranks, but the leadership and member of the Socialist Party at no time threatened him with expulsion because of the different position that he held on an important tactical issue. In the SWP, however, when he refused the order not to take up the position of ‘National Organiser’ of Respect, the SWP leadership summarily expelled him. This points up, once more, the fundamental differences between the Socialist Party and the heritage of Lenin and Trotsky in the Bolsheviks in the handling of internal disputes, and the method of the present SWP. The SWP combines opportunist politics with a bureaucratic method in handling differences and opposition, both within their own ranks and in organisations in which they participate.
The deep well of suspicion – generated by the actions of the SWP – came to the surface following the debacle of Respect. But the signs were there before of general discontent with the methods of the SWP, and not just from the Socialist Party. This surfaced, for instance, in Leeds, in relation to the ‘Leeds Left Alliance’ (LLA). We would not agree with all of the criticisms of the Leeds Left Alliance; for instance, they criticise the SWP because they claim to be “a revolutionary party”. That is their right, as it is with us, the Socialist Party. Moreover, the sweeping condemnation of other organisations made by the LLA which, they allege, try to “take over” existing campaigns has also been used against Militant and the Socialist Party by our opponents, some of them claiming to stand on the left. However, the Socialist Party has had up to now a generally good relationship with the Leeds Left Alliance, partly because we have not used the methods of the SWP and we have sought genuinely to build an open, democratic alliance.
In October 2000, the LLA stated bluntly: “The SWP has a long and consistent history of active hostility to everyone else on the left in British politics. They have a record, repeated over and over again, of going into other campaigns and organisations, taking them over… [They] also have a record of simply attacking other organisations and of setting up rival campaigns to undermine genuine ones.” Unfortunately, this is not just the experience for the Leeds Left Alliance but practically every other genuine organisation of the left, as the history of the Socialist Alliance documented above demonstrates and now, the wreckage of Respect. The above comments of Mark Steel bear out that the Leeds Left Alliance is not alone in its criticisms. The LLA also complained that at the Socialist Alliance conference in Coventry on 30 September 2000, the SWP had enough individual members to field nearly 200 on the floor of the conference. Indeed, nearly 150 new members of the Socialist Alliance were signed up on the door… The SWP now effectively control the Socialist Alliance by dint of simply joining up, and wheeling out, enough members to dominate.”
The SWP cannot be criticised for their size. When Militant was bigger than the SWP, a similar charge was levelled at our door. It is not just a question of the size of a party but what it says and what it does, and how, that counts. When the LLA proposed a mechanism to provide “reassurance” against any prospect of an SWP takeover, their suggestions were rejected. For instance, the Hull Left Alliance, with the original compliance of SWP members there, adopted a constitution where each organisation had no more than one vote. However, the Leeds SWP rejected this, as did the national leadership of their party. Their Hull comrades then fell into line.
The impulsiveness and lack of sensitivity of the SWP is also shown by their clash with the RMT leadership in October 2007. They claimed on the Respect web site that the RMT London region had voted to support Lindsey German, then of Respect and later of the SWP’s wing of Respect, on the ‘Left List’, for Mayor of London. The article also stated that the London Transport Region of the RMT supported her for the Greater London Assembly elections in 2008. Bob Crow, on behalf of the RMT, was forced to send a letter to Respect:
“The report misleadingly gives the impression that RMT members from the London area pledged support for Lindsey German. This is unequivocally not the case. Nor does support for Ms German represent RMT’s official position on candidates for GLA elections, or of mayor… Official support for political organisations or candidates is solely the province of the union’s Council of Executives. It is a matter of deep disquiet that the Respect website contains such misleading statements and references to persons claiming to speak on behalf of RMT’s London area when they have no such authority. This article represents an unwarranted and unwelcome intrusion into this union’s internal political discussions and gives members and the general public the impression that a decision has been taken on the question of support for GLA and mayoral candidates when this is emphatically not the case.”
The cavalier attitude of the SWP – of using individuals as purporting to speak for sections of the union movement – is quite common in the history of their organisation’s involvement with the unions. Under the banner of ‘Respect’ this did not change but if anything was reinforced. This is linked to their approach to the unions.
An examination of their role in a number of key industrial battles in the past number of years shows how flawed is their method, both in winning support for their point of view but also the lack of understanding in the relationship between ad hoc unofficial union organisations from below, and the official structures. Skilful tactics are a foreign language as far as most SWP-trained union activists are concerned.
In the 1970s, the International Socialists (IS – the previous name of the SWP), set up ‘Rank and File’ organisations in several trade unions. In one or two unions, these had a certain base. But the zigzagging of the IS/SWP also affected their trade union work. Draconian edicts from Cliff and the IS leadership closed down, quite arbitrarily, an IS-formed group of workers in ‘Rank and File’. Jim Higgins wrote about this:
“The IS had some 3,000 members, nearly half of them manual workers. The group produced a number of rank-and-file papers, with a combined circulation of 30,000. There were operational rank-and-file groups in the teachers, mining, engineering, post office unions and in the TGWU, ASTMS and TASS and others I cannot recall offhand. Modest though these achievements were, they were better than anything we had before.” [Jim Higgins, ibid.]
He then goes on to outline the success of the IS, in which he claims, it had a working-class base, a framework of rank-and-file activity and a number of rank-and-file publications, amidst a rising tide of militancy. He then says: “This was the plus side of the equation. On the other side was Cliff.” The inane and arbitrary turn away from ‘official positions’ within the trade unions – branch secretaries, national executive members of unions, etc. – was a cornerstone of SWP policy throughout the 1990s until relatively recently. Then, suddenly, there was an about face, particularly after Cliff died, and they sought to enter – with basically the same methods – the broad left-type organisations in the trade unions. This was done without any balance sheet of the previous method of work and was largely ordained from the top.
Camden NALGO 1992
But their tactics in industrial disputes could be disastrous, both for the workers concerned and ultimately the SWP. The 1992 Camden council social workers strike shows this. These workers had been on strike for a long time over the issue of the re-grading of jobs. Their union at the time, NALGO (which later merged with NUPE and COHSE to form Unison), was paying full take-home pay to the strikers.
Before the strike was over, some of the strikers had gone back to work effectively abandoning their brothers and sisters on the picket line. The council announced a re-organisation of the department and that some workers would be made redundant. This included those who had supported the strike until it was officially over and some who had gone back to work before its official end.
The union’s industrial action committee, of which Socialist Party member Roger Bannister was a member, decided that they would continue to pay full take-home pay to those made redundant until such time as they were able to get jobs, but not to pay those who had gone back before the strike was over and who were now redundant.
The Camden NALGO branch, under the influence of the SWP, put a resolution to the annual conference condemning this decision and called for full take-home pay to be paid to the redundant workers irrespective of whether they had crossed the picket line or not.
Roger Bannister spoke on behalf of the NEC in opposing the Camden motion. The argument of the SWP was that the NEC did not “understand the reasons that the workers abandoned the strike”. Roger, in his reply, said he did not understand those who gave excuses to those who break ranks during a strike. He said: “If you go out together then you should go back together.” If the strike breakers were to be rewarded with full take home pay from the union, then they would have received more than those strikers who had stuck it out. Rogers’s speech, which was in defence of basic trade union principles, swung the conference and heavily defeated the Camden branch resolution.
There was also the dispute in Islington Unison in 1998. This branch of the union had been a stronghold for the SWP for some time. Many of them came from the universities into local government as already-committed members of the SWP. In the 1995 elections for general secretary of Unison, Roger Bannister, a well-known, longstanding supporter of Militant and later the Socialist Party, won the support of the branch at a general membership meeting against the SWP candidate, Yunus Bakhsh. His and the SWP’s methods were, in effect, repudiated in the nomination of candidates when only SWP members and a few others supported him, with Roger Bannister gaining the support of the bulk of the non-SWP members at the meeting.
The SWP had sought to impose Yunus Bakhsh on the left as a whole. This was despite the fact that Roger Bannister had a proven track record in opposing the right-wing in elections, when the SWP had ignored them. In the 1995 election, Roger received more votes than Yunus Bakhsh who, in effect, split the left. Roger Bannister received 58,052 votes (18.2 per cent) against Yunus Bashkh’s 15,139 (4.8 per cent).
After this, in May 1998, the Islington Housing Benefits department was subject to reorganisation by the New Labour-led council, which involved, amongst other attacks, job losses and workers forced to re-apply for their own jobs. This was part of an overall strategy for savage cuts in council expenditure over a three-year period. The workers opposed the council’s plan and Unison organised a ballot for strike action in the department. On a Friday, the ballot result was returned with an overwhelming majority for a strike. But then the council announced that some of the workers would be forced to apply for the remaining jobs after re-organisation, having ‘failed’ their interviews. This was clearly a provocation but unfortunately the SWP, through the branch secretary at the time, an SWP member, fell into a trap.
Four SWP members, some of whom were shop stewards, worked in the housing department and were obviously faced with the sack. Over the weekend, they met and decided to organise an unofficial strike on the Monday, because of the actions of the council. This was despite the fact that the council’s Housing Benefit workers already had official backing to take strike action once the council had been given the statutory one-week notice under the Tory anti-union laws. Those who were faced with the sack were no doubt extremely angry. But the SWP – with their crude attitude of always being on the ‘offensive’ – did not think the issue out and were desperate to get illegal action off the ground. There was a special responsibility on the shoulders of the branch secretary, Murthlewaite. But instead of a careful approach, seeking the maximum effective action, he organised a meeting on the Monday of the group of housing benefit workers and recommended a walk-out there and then. The result was that 20 workers walked out on unofficial strike a few days before the whole department could have come out in official action. The bosses threatened to sack the strikers and twelve of them in the section did not return to work, including four SWP members.
A few weeks later, the whole Unison branch membership voted by a majority not to take strike action in support of the sacked workers. Members of the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison (CFDU) – a broad left organisation in Unison which the Socialist Party was then part of – including members of the branch and the national secretary of the CFDU, kept in contact with Unison branch members and members of the CFDU worked the hardest to get a positive vote for action in support of the sacked workers. After the branch voted down a strike, the branch secretary put out a leaflet defending his leadership of the branch and announced that he would resign as branch secretary to allow a new election to take place, and he would stand, defending his record. The CFDU members in Islington put out a leaflet attacking the bosses and the plan to carry out massive cuts but also criticising the total misleadership of the branch secretary, which had led to the sacking and isolation of 12 members. The CFDU subsequently announced they would put up a slate in the election against the branch leadership.
By a manoeuvre, the SWP, using a technicality, managed to get the elections postponed. But the period between the postponed elections of September 1998 and the reconvened AGM in February 1999 was a period when the SWP’s reputation with Unison members in Islington continued to decline. At a national level, the Unison officialdom took advantage of the mistakes of the SWP to attack the branch, including warning against the use of branch money to finance activities initiated by this and other branches outside the control of the national leadership.
Despite the tactical errors of the SWP, the members and supporters of the Socialist Party opposed the witch-hunt against them. The SWP in Islington paid for their arrogance and their lack of a clear tactic in their rejection by the membership of the branch.
Subsequently, they changed tack, both there and elsewhere, and merged with the CFDU to form the ‘United Left’. This did not represent a change in methods because they linked up with the more conservative, pro-New Labour section of the United Left – led by the likes of Jon Rogers, a UNISON branch secretary in Lambeth, who advocates remaining within New Labour – and pushed this organisation towards the right! The political shift towards a more ‘moderate’ political line meant they were more in consonance with the leadership of the United Left than the Socialist Party, which up to this stage had held an important position within this body.
When the Socialist Party members withdrew from the United Left, they issued the following statement:
“Our primary concern is that the United Left, under the political influence of its largest component the Socialist Workers Party, is drifting to the right at a time when the attacks of the New Labour government on the working class in general and on public sector workers in particular is giving rise to increased militancy and radicalisation amongst the grass roots membership. This situation presents us with major political problems.
“This situation is illustrated most clearly in relation to the Political Fund [of Unison] and the Labour Party… The United Left… not only continues to support affiliation to New Labour (which saw £3 million of union members’ money handed over last year alone). It has also singularly failed to even seriously implement the United Left position of opening up the funds to allow support for other candidates as well as New Labour.”
Together, in a bloc, the SWP and United Left leaders attempted to foist onto the Socialist Party decisions meant to isolate Socialist Party members. Having jointly backed Roger Bannister in the 2000 general secretary election against Dave Prentis, when Roger received 71,021 votes (nearly 32%), the SWP supported Rogers in 2005. Against a once-more victorious Prentis with 184,769 votes (75.6%), Roger Bannister, polled 41,406 votes (16.9%). But the ‘United Left’ (UL) candidate Jon Rogers received just 18,306 votes (7.5%)
Switch in union tactics
The switch which this represented in the politics of the SWP within the unions – from ultra-leftism and sectarianism to conciliation with the increasingly right-wing union leadership – was shown at the 2001 Unison conference. They tail-ended Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, once vilified by the capitalist press as part of the ‘awkward squad’ but now firmly wedded to propping up Blair’s government. Typical was the contribution of SWP member John McLaughlin from Tower Hamlets who declared: “How marvellous to hear the brilliant speech from the general secretary [Prentis] against privatisation.” But words are cheap. Prentis did not match this with proposed action in support of his members’ rights and conditions. At the height of the programme of privatisation of Blair’s government, if the Unison leadership had not expressed some opposition, they would have been completely exposed before the delegates.
The arguments of Socialist Party members that the leadership was not to be trusted, no matter how many radical speeches were made was met with furious opposition from the SWP and their co-thinkers. For instance, Brian Butterworth, a leading SWP member from Brent Council, stated at the conference: “We are all together now united with the leadership.” Yunus Bakhsh, the leading SWP figure in the union, demanded that the left “trust [Dave] Prentis to deliver on the campaign against racism and fascism”. This is the same Dave Prentis who has recently presided over the expulsion of SWP members from Unison in Plymouth.
Their ingrained sectarian methods have continued in the battles within Unison in the recent period. The main offensive of the right-wing dominated Unison leadership has been against four members of the Socialist Party in the infamous ‘three wise monkeys’ case (see The Socialist). The outcome of this struggle has not been decided as yet. It is not just Socialist Party members who have been under attack but a generalised offensive has been launched on the left including members of the SWP and others. And yet all attempts of the Socialist Party to form a ‘united front’ – the in-phrase of the SWP at the moment – came to nothing in the run-up to the 2008 Unison conference. Only the pressure of rank-and-file delegates and the magnificent demonstration of Unison members from the branches to which the attacked four belonged compelled the SWP to organise limited common action. This further illustrates the method and character of the SWP, which is to attain positions not by the force of argument and comradely persuasion but by manoeuvre, unprincipled combinations – in the case of Unison, with Labour lefts who also have a quiescent position towards the Brown government. Their position is, in effect, to cover up for union leaders with a past left reputation but who have moved rightwards and do not match words with deeds.
This is in marked contradistinction to the blanket condemnation of these ‘bureaucratic’ leaders in the past. They have swung from one extreme to another, now seeking an advance, both politically and organisationally by clinging to the coat-tails of these very same leaders. This is in place of elaborating a clear policy and, at the same time, engaging where necessary in open, friendly, criticisms of these leaders if they do match deeds with words.
PCS criticisms – SWP attacks left
Their denunciatory approach in the unions is now almost exclusively reserved for the Socialist Party. This has recently been evident in the civil service union PCS, in which the Socialist Party has a major influence and the SWP very little. Within the PCS, the SWP are compelled to work within ‘Left Unity’, the organisation of the overwhelming majority of the left, as a small minority and therefore scope for their usual activities is limited. But, as we have seen, this does not prevent them from making scurrilous, uninformed and incorrect criticisms of the Socialist Party on key trade union and industrial issues.
This was the case over the vital issue of pensions and the role of the Socialist Party members on the national executive of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in 2005. The SWP roundly condemned the acceptance of a pensions’ agreement with the government as a “sell-out”. This led to a split in their ranks with a member of the SWP on the NEC leaving them over this issue. The truth is that the national executive of the PCS, with the full involvement of the general secretary Mark Serwotka, managed to unite the whole union in defence of pensions, standing firm against the most defeatist cynicism from some of the leaders of other unions. The PCS secured the pension rights of all existing civil servants – something that was widely regarded as impossible to achieve and which was greeted with universal acclamation by PCS members and activists. The only exceptions to this were those around the so-called ‘Socialist Caucus’ – the “independent left group in the union” – and the SWP. They described this significant achievement as a “shabby deal”, a viewpoint that was almost unanimously rejected by the PCS conference, with 98% of the members voting in favour of accepting the deal in a membership ballot. Mark Serwotka, who fully supported this deal, was never openly criticised – it was a different story behind his back – either verbally or in written criticism from the SWP. The Socialist Party was, however, condemned.
Another example of this was the 2007 Royal Mail strikes involving the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU). Incredibly, in an internal bulletin, they claimed: “The Socialist Party dominated executive of the PCS pressured Mark Serwotka to back away from such a move [PCS coming to the support of the postal workers], and he felt he had to go along with them. We [the SWP] did not have enough influence in the PCS to force through united strikes.”
John McInally, Vice-President of the PCS, and a prominent Socialist Party member in the union, demolished this charge of the SWP in a forensic article in Socialism Today. He wrote:
“What then is the truth behind the assertion in the SWP’s statement? In summer of 2007 – when the postal strikes were taking place – the PCS was conducting a mass consultation with members in which the leadership spoke directly to 25,000 members at around 3,000 meetings. The PCS NEC had unanimously agreed this strategy after two previous one-day strikes against compulsory redundancies, low pay and unfair pay systems, privatisation and in defence of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme… The PCS led the campaign to unite pay struggles in 2007, which it tried to base on the successful united campaign to defend pensions in 2005… Mark Serwotka, with the PCS NEC’s full backing, wrote to various public sector unions – including the CWU – asking to meet with a view to link up plans for campaign work and joint action where possible. The CWU leadership did not take up this offer. In fact the first the PCS knew of the CWU plans for action was when the union announced a series of strike days for the postal workers. The CWU leadership, including the president – SWP member, Jane Loftus – missed a real opportunity to link up their campaign with that of the PCS.”
“The left has the duty to debate how we respond and, while there will be real differences on occasions, this can never be an excuse for adopting the type of cynical methods that have been used in the SWP’s article to openly lie about a campaigning left union leadership for dubious factional advantage.” [John McInally, ‘The PCS, the CWU dispute & the struggle for public sector workers’ unity’, Socialism Today, Issue 116, March 2008.]
On the issue of public-sector workers’ unity in the struggle on pay, the SWP attacked the Socialist Party members in the DWP section of the PCS. But they conveniently forgot their cuddling up to the leadership of Unison, including general secretary Dave Prentis, especially at the 2007 Unison conference. They opposed a ballot for immediate industrial action proposed by Socialist Party members, in favour of the leadership’s proposal for a “third consultative ballot”. It was Socialist Party member Roger Bannister who subsequently moved a successful motion on industrial action of Unison in support of a two-day strike.
Manoeuvring in the NUT
In 2007, the Socialist Party backed the candidature of Martin Powell-Davies for vice-president of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which upset the cosy relationship that the left had built up with the right. The Socialist Party is in favour of the maximum left unity. But not the ‘unity of the graveyard’ when organisational collaboration is used a an excuse to cover up what needs to be done in the urgent position facing the working class in Britain now, and particularly in the convulsive period we are entering.
This, in turn, led to the removal of Socialist Party member Linda Taaffe from the National Executive Committee of the NUT. She was removed from the left slate for the ‘crime’ of pressing for urgent action in 2007 on the long-delayed pay claim for teachers. A majority on the National Executive Committee – including the left – equivocated and constantly delayed setting a date for a ballot for effective industrial action. Her criticisms, not just of the right but of the ‘left’ in the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) and the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance (STA), were entirely justified given their compliance with the right.
This resulted in some of the left resorting to the most undemocratic measures, including shamefully ‘avoiding’ sending in a nomination paper for Linda Taaffe from one branch they controlled. This removed an effective left representative on the NEC who had been part of the national executive left for ten years. Moreover, her replacement on the slate of the ‘left’ was also included on the slate of the right! This individual voted with the right at his first NEC meeting!
One of the lefts most vehement in attacking Linda and organising to have her removed was the SWP’s Nick Grant – who was subsequently elected to the 2008 NEC in place of her. When the national executive once more refused to legitimise an earlier ballot in favour of action, Grant, in a graphic demonstration of the new ‘openness’ of the SWP, refused to answer questions from teachers as to who of the ‘lefts’ had voted against further action: “Let’s not be personal”. Under pressure, the NUT leadership, in September 2008, were compelled to ratify a ballot. To do otherwise would have been totally unviable, given the huge rise in the cost of living and the standstill in teachers’ wages. But the equivocation over a considerable period of time of this National Executive Committee with a nominal ‘left majority’, which was opposed by the Socialist Party, does not bode well for sustained effective action in defence of teachers’ pay and conditions in the future.
Similar methods were applied in the lecturers’ union NATFHE over the then incumbent general secretary Paul Mackney in 2002. Over the objections of Socialist Party member Andrew Price, then the executive member for Wales, the SWP used their electoral weight to impose on the left in a completely unprincipled and opportunist fashion support for Mackney. The policy of the leadership of Mackney and Barry Lovejoy was to ‘name and shame’ colleges who would not pay the nationally-agreed pay award. In effect, local branches of the union were left to sort the issues out. This represented reneging on their trade union responsibilities for unified national action. Yet the SWP lined up behind Mackney because he was prepared to give verbal support to the Stop the War Coalition and flirt with the idea of the Socialist Alliance at that stage. There is a long tradition in the British trade union movement of leaders who are radical on international issues but the opposite on domestic questions; ‘the love of the distant’.
Fighting Racism and Fascism & Student Work
Racism and Fascism
The issues of racism and fascism, and how to combat them and the far-right British National Party (BNP) – which has, in its leadership, fascist elements – has recently assumed greater importance in Britain. The changed economic and social situation – with a deepening of the economic crisis – has meant that immigration has come back onto the political agenda. There are inevitably attempts to scapegoat immigrants by the far right. Moreover, ‘respectable’ figures in the media and even Labour MPs like Frank Field argue that Britain is ‘full up’ and that further immigration should be curtailed or even stopped completely. This has, in turn, given opportunities to the BNP to make gains both at council level; the election of the first BNP Greater London Assembly member, Richard Barnbrook, on the coat-tails of Boris Johnson’s victory is a warning.
But at the same time, engraved on the consciousness of the most aware workers is the necessity to combat fascism and the far right, even in its incipient phase, through the policy of the united front. The refusal of the Communist Party in Germany in the early 1930s to organise united front activity with the social democrats – dubbed ‘social fascists’ by the Communist Party leaders at the time – allowed Hitler to come to power. He did this without ‘a pane of glass being broken’. This terrible negative example from history has since motivated socialists and anti-fascists to adopt one cardinal rule: never to allow the forces of the working class to be divided in action – despite any political differences – in combating fascism, neo-fascism and the far right today.
The danger of a new Hitler or Mussolini, of a mass fascist force, is not posed today. But the present situation in Britain, Western Europe and elsewhere is fertile territory for the growth in support of far-right organisations unless they are effectively opposed. Today, however, the Socialist Workers Party – while agreeing in words with united front activity – have demonstrated again and again their incapacity to bloc with others in order to attain the maximum unity against the fascists. They have invariably sought to ‘capture’ the leadership of ad hoc anti-fascist organisations, without having earned a position through patient, consistent work and by winning the respect and support of activists involved in the struggle.
This was on full display at the mass demonstrations against the siting of the BNP headquarters in Welling in 1993. Three demonstrations took place in May and October of that year. In May, the SWP-led Anti-Nazi League organised a demo of 1,000, starting from a different mobilising point, a week after the successful 8,000-strong Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) demo past the BNP’s headquarters.
An even bigger march, jointly organised by the ANL, YRE and Indian Workers’ Association, took place on 16 October – the same day as another anti-racist march in central London organised by the Anti-Racist Alliance (an anti-racist campaign set up and backed by a combination of trade union leaders and Labour Party lefts). This unfortunate split was engineered by the SWP-led ANL, who initially backed the Anti-Racist Alliance demonstration through central London only to turn up at one of the coordinating meetings with leaflets already printed for a demonstration on the same day marching through Welling.
In contrast Militant Labour, predecessor of the Socialist Party, had consistently argued for a demonstration through Welling at a later date; once the two demonstrations had split we were forced to choose Welling. However having forced a split in the anti-racist movement and called a demonstration in Welling, the leaders of the ANL consistently attempted to block proposals at the coordinating committee for adequate stewarding to protect demonstrators from attack by BNP supporters or the police.
On the day of the demonstration the SWP and ANL leadership were putting all their energy into placing their contingent at the head of the march and getting publicity for the ANL, leaving demonstrators potentially in danger from attacks by the police. It was the stewarding team led by Militant Labour and the YRE (with the help of numerous other trade unionists and anti-racists including rank and file members of the SWP) that was crucial when the police blocked the march from passing the BNP’s offices. There was no way through so the stewards kept the march together along the agreed route and protected its rear from a vicious charge by the police.
The SWP was in their ‘triumphalist’ phase at this stage, prepared to elbow everyone else aside eager to get publicity and to build their organisation. This was done irrespective of what effect it would have on the struggle against the far right. They succeeded in alienating all those who were prepared to be involved in preparing for the demo from the outset.
There is again a stark contrast between this and the approach of Militant and others in the epic battles against the predecessors of the BNP, the National Front (NF), in the 1970s. The first national demonstration against racism and fascism organised by the British labour movement was in Bradford in May 1974, organised through the Labour Party Young Socialists – then under the influence of Militant – and sanctioned by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. As with all campaigns we participated in, our aim was to forge in action the maximum support, both from the labour movement and broad layers of the working class, irrespective of what political differences may exist on other issues. There was freedom for all to argue their point of view and to dispute, if necessary, the demands of the organisers and the action best suited to combat the fascists.
To give them their due, there was an element of this also in the SWP’s initiative in launching the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in the 1970s to combat the NF. However, even then the ANL – under the influence of the SWP – was restricted to the bare slogan “Don’t vote Nazi”. As we point out below in relation to Unite Against Fascism, this suggested that it was legitimate to vote for the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. Moreover, any attempt to argue counter to this approach met with vehement opposition from the SWP. But they did draw in at that stage figures on the left. The now discredited former ‘left’ Neil Kinnock, as well as Peter Hain – then a radical who had been leader of the Young Liberals – and many others, were involved with the ANL. The national mobilisation and Rock Against Racism festivals organised in Victoria Park in 1978, with bands like the Clash performing were highly successful. The NF leaders subsequently admitted that this was a severe blow to their organisation at that stage. The NF subsequently went into decline, partly because of this, but also because of the election of Thatcher in 1979, who was seen as ‘doing the job’ of the far right in any case.
The ANL banner was maintained by the SWP until the recent period. But it never became a real membership-based campaign with democratic structures and the participation of others – apart from the SWP – in its workings. It was, in effect, a convenient ‘signboard’ for them that could be resurrected whenever the far right raised its head. The SWP would then claim that it was the ANL which must automatically be designated as the ‘leadership’.
Unite Against Fascism
An indication that it did not have roots or democratic structures was shown by the replacement of the ANL – which has been ditched without discussion amongst ANL or SWP supporters – by the organisation ‘Unite Against Fascism’ (UAF). In this regard, the SWP is at least consistent. As the Socialist Alliance and now Respect show, they just dump organisations when they have served their purpose if they think it will enhance the SWP. UAF represents, however, a new point of departure for the SWP in the anti-fascist arena, both programmatically, in its main slogans, and also in its cosy relationship with the conservative trade union officialdom that currently dominates the labour movement in Britain. Previously, viable rank-and-file ad hoc anti-fascist organisations were either viewed with suspicion or outright hostility by the trade union bureaucracy. Action to combat fascists on a clear programme was anathema to them. But UAF has now become an almost semi-official organisation of the trade union bureaucracy, enjoying support and tolerance from sections of the TUC and a number of individual trade union ‘sponsors’.
‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’. This has led the SWP to adopt a false political position on how to combat the BNP politically. Its main demand, in consonance with its trade union allies, particularly in elections, has been the slogan ‘vote against the BNP’. This has been interpreted as advocating a vote for the ‘anti-BNP’ parties; this means not just discredited New Labour and the openly pro-capitalist Liberal Democrats but even the Tories. These professed ‘anti-BNP’ parties are nothing of the kind. In words, New Labour opposes the BNP but in practice its shift towards the right, its embrace of unrestrained, neo-liberal capitalism – means that it has effectively deserted workers. Some of the very poorest workers, therefore, who previously supported them, have swung over in despair, seduced by the demagogic appeal of the BNP. The Tories also encourage the BNP by seeking to outdo them in adopting right-wing policies on immigration and other issues.
It is therefore necessary to offer a clear anti-capitalist, socialist alternative in elections combined with action on demos, etc, if the BNP are to be fought effectively. Also, it is not sufficient today with the BNP moving to more skilful tactics – appealing to workers on a ‘radical’, sometimes anti-establishment or anti-capitalist, basis – to merely repeat the denunciations of ‘fascists’ more relevant to a previous era. The ‘no platform for fascists’ demand needs to be maintained in universities and elsewhere where there is a natural hostility of youth to the airing of fascist or neo-fascist views. But this is not suitable on all occasions. For instance, where the BNP has captured important council positions – as in Stoke – it would be ludicrous to argue for ‘no platform’. This would be seen as unviable, not only by those who elected them but from a wider spectrum of people as well. In a situation like this, it is necessary to combat the BNP and their arguments, which sometimes means not just arguing in council chambers against them but also, for instance, in the media.
The Nottinghamshire campaign against the BNP
But this kind of skilful approach towards combating the BNP is foreign to the SWP, both from ideological and ‘practical’ points of view. They pursue the same unbending, sectarian tactics despite their recent adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. In fact, their methods on the ground have not changed since the early 1990s. For instance, in August 2008, in the preparations in Nottingham for and on the demonstration in Codnor against the BNP’s ‘Red, White and Blue Festival’ (RWB) in nearby Denby, the SWP’s crass sectarianism was evident to all non-SWP anti-fascists who participated in this highly successful protest.
The protest had been organised by the “Notts Stop the BNP” (NSBNP), a genuine coalition which worked with local residents in the Amber Valley area which covered Denby and Codnor. NSBNP had widespread support from trade unions locally and nationally. Socialist Party members have played a leading role in NSBNP from the beginning.
After ignoring repeated invitations from NSBNP to participate in the existing protest, the SWP-UAF unilaterally announced another protest in the same area but at a later time. UAF refused all proposals from NSBNP to unite the two rallies and protests despite the danger of splitting the turnout and confusion in an area where there were likely to be hundreds of BNP supporters.
Instead of working towards maximising the turnout at a united protest and building a campaign with local roots the SWP-UAF concentrated on attracting trade union support for their protest at the expense of the existing one, including claiming that their protest was the only one which had police permission. In fact, UAF agreed the time and, apparently, the location of their protest with the police only three days before the NSBNP protest did – just eight days before the actual protest SWP members in the trade unions manoeuvred against the NSBNP protest, organising the times of trade union coaches so that they only arrived once the NSBNP protest was underway. This even applied to coaches from around the East Midlands which could have arrived early enough.
On the day UAF played an incredibly sectarian role, initially refusing to join the NSBNP rally which was going on when they arrived. They insisted on having the UAF banner at the front of the march on all occasions, pushing local residents and their banner aside. Having sidelined the local opponents of the BNP UAF marchers and SWP members proceeded to shout “Nazi scum off our streets” at local residents who had come out to watch the march – a tactic which only helped the BNP.
At Derby Trades Council in September 2008, a leading SWP member opposed support for a local conference called by the NSBNP to review events. Clearly, the SWP-UAF have once again not covered themselves in glory with this ill-judged intervention. This event, more than words about the ‘united front’ shows that the SWP maintains an unreconstructed sectarian approach which is incapable of halting the rise of the far-right. In contrast, following the demo, two new local campaigns were developed by the work of the NSBNP, ‘Amber Valley Stop the BNP’ and the ‘Derby Campaign against Racism and Fascism’.
A similar attitude by the SWP – combined with opportunist combinationism – is also evident in the field of student politics. The student milieu is largely middle class, despite the increased opportunities for working-class students to attend universities and colleges in the 1960s, 1970s and, to some extent, in the 1980s. The attacks on university education in the 1990s and since have borne down most heavily on working-class and lower middle-class young people going on to further and higher education.
Marxists have always considered that it is vital to seek to win the best students to our ideas. As Trotsky pointed out, even for students from a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois background, university represented freedom for a time from their normal milieu. This is the time of their lives – freed from parental control and a bourgeois conformist environment – perhaps the only time that they are able to examine and ‘experiment’ with ideas. Therefore, many could be won on an ideological basis to the ideas of Marxism and Trotskyism in the modern era. The experience and success of Militant, and now the Socialist Party, in winning and retaining valuable members from the student field bears this out.
However, this approach has always been quite distinct from other socialist and Marxist organisations. A properly educated and trained Marxist won from the student field can play a very important role as ‘yeast’ to the workers’ movement itself. But the precondition for this is the abandonment of a haughty, academic attitude – all too often the hallmark of student ‘Marxists’. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all came from either a bourgeois or petty bourgeois background.
However, they placed themselves on the standpoint of the working class politically, but also in their outlook and even their lifestyle, particularly the lack of any privileges. Students, aspiring to be Marxists, we argued, must first go to ‘school’ in the workers’ movement, learn from the working class, both its history and its contemporary features, before they themselves become ‘teachers’.
Unfortunately, this is not the approach of even many left students, won to ‘Marxism’ from the universities and colleges. The SWP itself has a chequered history in this regard. In the radical wave that swept the universities in the 1960s, with its ‘libertarian’ overtones, they also adopted many of these features, with an uncritical attitude towards ‘feminism’, ‘black power’, etc. Militant, now the Socialist Party, pursued, at first, an ideological battle to win the best students to a rounded-out Marxist position. Only in this way could they last, unlike others who, catching a bout of ‘socialist measles’ while at university, were promptly ‘cured’ when they left and returned to ‘normal’ capitalist society.
At the same time, while combating the false ideas prevalent in the university milieu, from the bourgeois professors and their ilk, we also seek to relate – particularly in this period when education is under attack – our programme to the real day-to-day problems which students and academic staff experience. The imposition of fees has had a deleterious effect on students, particularly those from a poorer background. This issue is also linked to the attack on the National Union of Students’ democracy from the right-wing students and the government. The aim is to nullify opposition to present and future attacks by limiting and de-politicising the NUS. Imitating their recent trade union orientation, the SWP has directed a lot of their efforts not on mobilising from below but to the tops of the student movement and its structures.
Socialist Students is an independent organisation with Socialist Party participation. It concentrates on convincing ordinary students, while not completely ignoring the structures of the NUS. The SWP/Student Respect, with which they were closely allied until recently, have argued that the main task should be the convincing of ‘sabbatical’ officers within the student unions who are wavering over whether to support the NUS’s review, which attacked union democracy. From November 2007, the SWP’s student organisation, Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS), and Student Respect, tried to dominate the ‘Save the NUS Democracy Campaign’. They wished to determine how the campaign was run, who would speak at meetings, when they are called in to speak and who was elected onto the steering committees. The SWP’s students have, in effect, undemocratically used their weight of numbers at these meetings to run the campaign on their own terms and have specifically excluded others, particularly Socialist Students from even raising ideas for debate.
Contrast this to the attitude adopted by the Socialist Party’s representatives in other fields, where the SWP is in a minority. For instance, they are a small force in the left of PCS. Nevertheless, Socialist Party members include them on the ‘Left Unity’ slate and they are accordingly elected onto the National Executive Committee of that union. Also, they did not initially participate in the setting up of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), favouring the alternative of their own organisation, the Organisation for Fighting Unions. Only when that organisation collapsed did they turn towards the NSSN. But Socialist Party members did not object to their members sitting on the NSSN’s steering committee as it was important that all working-class and left organisations represented.
A similar fear of Socialist Party members’ ideas is also evident in their attitude towards the initiative, the Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF). This campaign involves Socialist Party members, Socialist Students, young Greens, Education Not for Sale (ENS), People and Planet, trade unionists, NUS officials and many others in its activities. It has also been supported by a number of Student unions including Portsmouth, Huddersfield, Lambeth College and others.
Yet the SWSS/Student Respect, through SWSS at Northumbria University, tried to block a motion to the Student Council from Socialist Student members advocating support for the CDF. When Manchester Socialist Students organised a protest or stunt as part of the 21 February 2008 day of action to defeat fees around the issue of student debt, outside Manchester University Students’ Union, the SWP did not participate. Despite repeated appeals to members of the SWP/Student Respect, including full-time sabbaticals in the student union, for their support, the student union did not participate or support the students’ protest. Even worse, they stayed in their offices while the BBC was filming the protest outside. Moreover, SWSS/Student Respect have also attacked the CDF publicly at events like the Portsmouth Student Union activity.
With the onset of the economic crisis in Britain and worldwide, and following in its wake the more difficult economic environment for students when they leave university, means that the best students will be looking for arguments, answers and action to the problems they face. This requires a more serious approach than that offered by the SWP and its student organisation SWSS.
The United Front today & the Left in Germany
United Front today
Despite the constant intoning of support for the ‘united front’ tactic, the Socialist Workers Party has misapplied this idea and burnt its fingers. The consequences of this are that they are now in full-scale retreat even from its idea of ‘unity of the left’ and ‘regroupment’. Out of the ashes of Respect, a theoretical fatalism has now gripped the SWP leadership. In the debate on the issue of the crisis of working-class political representation at the National Shop Stewards’ Network conference in 2008, the then SWP spokesperson Unjum Mirza spoke at length on the general world economic situation and the crisis of world capitalism. He mentioned the state of working-class trade union organisation but absolutely nothing on the way forward in the next period on the key question of working-class political representation. John Rees repeated the same in a debate at Thanet with Hannah Sell from the Socialist Party in July 2008: “None of us have the answer on this platform; we will have to wait for events.”
What would Marx and Engels have said about such a politically quiescent attitude given the absence of independent political representation of the working class? For more than 50 years in the nineteenth century, they strove to create the conditions for the formation of a mass party of the working class, even if in the first instance it was not to be formed with a clear, revolutionary policy. Now, having burnt their fingers because of their false methods, the SWP, in effect, ‘parks’ this task, unloading it fatalistically onto the ‘shoulders of history’ rather than adopting an active, interventionist policy assisting history. In truth, they do not have any real Marxist perception of the way forward for the left. It signifies an accommodation with official ‘left forces’ which involves sublimating their own policy to that of ‘left leaders’, particularly if they have some prominence.
The IST and Die Linke
This attitude of the SWP – adapting to, almost merging with, new left leaders – has been particularly striking in the case of the evolution of the ‘Die Wahlalternative – Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkei’ (WASG: ‘The Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice’) in Germany and the subsequent development of Die Linke (the Left party). In opposition to the majority of the members of the WASG in Berlin, the sister organisation of the SWP fully supported the merger of the WASG with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the ruling party in the former Stalinist East Germany, even though there was initially big opposition in Berlin. This opposition arose from the cuts carried out by the coalition there involving the PDS. At the last WASG conference in early 2007, the comrades from Socialist Alternative (SAV), the German section of the CWI, were the main opponents of fusion because of its politically unprincipled character as it included the pro-coalitionist leadership of the PDS.
A key condition for the SAV’s support of the merger was that the new party should not participate in any government which was responsible for social cuts and privatisation. Lucy Redler was the main spokesperson for the trend of members in the WASG which was opposed to government participation as in Berlin and who were not prepared to accept this in order not to threaten the merger. The leader of the IST within Die Linke, Christine Bucholz, and Linksruck did not oppose the refusal to give Lucy and the Berlin WASG extra time to explain their position. This is despite the fact that, in private, Oskar Lafontaine agreed with some of the SAV’s criticisms of the then SPD-PDS coalition in Berlin city council.
Lafontaine was very radical at this conference, raising the issue of a general strike, saying that without the right to hold political strikes, “this republic [Germany] can no more be changed”. He also stressed, as he has done on many occasions, the importance of socialism, particularly mentioning Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The tasks of Marxists towards such leaders are not to attack them for ’empty rhetoric’, as did the ultra-left sectarians, including the SWP in the past. They should be commended for taking a stand, as Lafontaine has done. But then Marxists should seek to push them further to the left through constructive criticism and positive demands for taking the movement forward. This approach is not that of the SWP’s cousins in Germany. Their policy towards Lafontaine is generally one of a ‘closed mouth’ and a conscious policy of ingratiating themselves organisationally as well as politically with the leadership of Die Linke.
Link with bureaucracy and coalition
Now, in Die Linke, they have gone further in linking up with the bureaucracy of the new party, with paid jobs as assistants to MPs, etc. There is nothing wrong in principle in Marxists taking positions like this so long as it does not politically tie one’s hands. But this is precisely what has happened with the SWP as they tone down or just do not mention criticism of Die Linke leaders and, in the process, effectively dissolving themselves as an organised force.
The same tendencies are evident on the SWP’s approach to the key question of coalitions – both on a national and a Länder (state) level – particularly a far as Die Linke is concerned. This issue has occupied an important position historically in the workers’ movement, not least in Germany itself. In those countries, where the electoral system is based on proportional representation and therefore can be multi-party in character, the question of coalitions assumes great importance. Marxists are opposed in principle to the leaders of workers’ parties serving with capitalist parties in what are essentially bourgeois coalitions. These are presented as ‘partnerships’ but if they are, then it is between a rider and the horse! It is a device to ensnare workers’ leaders into undertaking responsibility for attacks on the rights and conditions of the working class. Trotsky characterised Popular Front governments – bourgeois coalitions sometimes involving the leaders of workers’ parties – as “strike-breaking conspiracies”. In opposition to these coalitions, Marxists emphasise the political independence of the working class at all times.
In Brazil, we are opposed to those Marxists – former Trotskyists – currently occupying ministerial positions in the Lula government in Brazil. These individuals – former members of the USFI – no doubt entered the Lula government believing that they could fulfil a progressive mission in introducing land reform that would benefit the landless. But they have been trapped within a government that has bent the knee to Brazilian and international capital. This in turn has stultified and minimalised whatever land ‘reforms’ were promised, bitterly disappointing the landless masses. This, in turn, has provoked splits and convulsions within the USFI, both in Brazil and internationally.
This does not mean that Marxists are opposed on all and every occasion to entering a ‘workers’ coalition’. In Russia following the October revolution, the Bolsheviks did collaborate in a coalition with the Left Social Revolutionaries. This was a governmental expression of the unity of the workers, represented by the Bolsheviks, and the peasants represented by Left Social Revolutionaries – a ‘workers and peasants’ government’. But this was only possible on the basis of a revolution, the greatest ever in history.
In Germany, coalitions, particularly between social democrats and others have been resorted to by the capitalists when their system faces an impasse. Such was the role of the traitorous social democrats – Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske – in the revolutionary aftermath of the First World War. On the other hand, there is also the example of the very short-term coalition between the Communist Party, led at the time by Brandler, and the left Social Democrats in Saxony, in the revolutionary situation in Germany 1923. That was controversial at the time and remains so today but the circumstances at that stage were unique, a clear revolutionary situation, with the expectation that the working class was about to take power. This is not the general situation that confronts the workers’ movement today. But the throwing back of consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism and the planned economies means that illusions have been generated on the issue of participation of the workers’ parties in such formations.
To counter this, a skilful approach is required by Marxists; for instance, in countries like Italy, with Rifondazione Comunista (RC), and with Die Linke in Germany today. The starting point for Marxists is clear: opposition to participation in bourgeois coalitions and of governments in which the workers’ parties are ‘represented’. We are opposed to blanket ‘support from the outside’, what are described in Germany as ‘toleration agreements’. The German section of the CWI, SAV, has demanded:
“No to participation in government with parties carrying out social cuts – whether via coalitions or tolerations. Instead each case should be decided on separately. Parliamentary votes to be carried out according to the interests of the working population.”
Where the working class supports such governments, illusions will exist, for a time at least. In Italy, for instance, it would have been wrong to have brought down the first ‘Olive Tree’ government led by Prodi – as some Marxists and Trotskyists argued at the time – as soon as it was elected. Only after it was seen clearly to stand on the right in 1998 did the RC withdraw its support. On the other hand, the RC entered Prodi’s government of 2006 with catastrophic results. This resulted in the recent virtual meltdown of the RC. Its fate hangs in the balance. It is not yet clear whether it will completely disintegrate as a workers’ party or be rescued by a revolt of what is left of the rank and file.
The lessons of the RC are pertinent to Germany today. The rise of Die Linke also witnessed the weakening of the SPD. This, in turn, has put the issue of coalitions back on the agenda, particularly at Land level in the state of Hesse. The position of the SWP is for support and toleration of a ‘red-green’ governmental coalition in this state.
A left Labour government in Britain
The present parliamentary cretinism of the IST in Germany may come as a surprise to those who observed their ‘non-parliamentary’ ultra-left position of the past. Indeed, they accuse Militant itself of entertaining parliamentary illusions because of the election of three Labour MPs who were supporters of Militant in the 1980s. In a pamphlet published in 1983, the SWP wrote:
“Is a left Labour government a total impossibility? Not quite… a left Labour government in office, perhaps with Ken Livingstone in the cabinet and supporters of Militant as junior ministers, a government which, unlike any of its predecessors, really might worry the ruling class.” [Pete Goodwin, ‘Is there a future for the Labour left?’ SWP, 1983.]
Merely to make this suggestion shows how far they were from what was actually taking place within the Labour Party at that stage and also the position of Militant. There was no possibility of Militant, or the Socialist Party today, participating in a “left Labour government”, led by somebody like Livingstone or even Tony Benn. We would, as we explained on many occasions, give support to specific actions of the government in so far as they attacked capitalism and benefited the working class. But sharing in a governmental coalition with others, before a decisive change in the situation with the working class coming to power, was entirely ruled out.
It is ironic but nevertheless has a certain logic that yesterday’s ‘anti-parliamentarians’ can today advocate the ‘parliamentary road’ in Germany for example. It is another manifestation that ultra-leftism and opportunism are head and tail of the same coin. In all new mass formations of the working class, there will be a struggle between those who wish to concentrate on the parliamentary plane at the expense of involvement in the industrial and general social struggles of the working class. This is a dividing line between the leadership of Die Linke, which now includes the IST, and the left that will coalesce amongst the active, fighting layers within the party. A similar polarisation has developed in P-SoL in Brazil, for instance, and will be a trend, almost from the outset, in all new formations both in Europe and internationally.
The IST and German reunification
Because they saw no fundamental difference between capitalism and Stalinism, the IST actually supported the reunification of Germany on a capitalist basis, which concretely meant supporting the liquidation of the remnants of the planned economy that existed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR – East Germany). They summed up their position later in the following manner:
“Instead of pounding on about the self-sufficiency of the GDR at any price, socialists would have had the task of advancing actual workers’ struggles. At the beginning of December  a general strike against the Stasi [GDR state security service] and for a plebiscite on reunification would have been possible.”[Bürokraten, Intelligenz und Arbeiter – Klassenkämpfe in der Revolution 1989(Bureaucrats, Intelligentsia and Workers Class Struggles in the 1989 revolution) by Volkhard Mosler – Originally published in: Sozialismus von unten, Nr.2,November/Dezember 1994, Pages.12-18. See note one at end of this chapter for original German text.]
Compare this approach to that of Trotsky at the time of the Saarland referendum in 1935. Clearly, the majority of the population was ethnically German but had been occupied by France following the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. Therefore, on ‘national’ grounds there was a case for reunification. But, said Trotsky, the social interests of the working class and their organisations always take priority for Marxists over the general ‘national’ factors in any given situation. Moreover, truth is concrete. To support a vote then for reunification of Saarland with Germany would have meant putting the workers of this area under the jackboot of the Nazis, which would mean in turn the elimination of all democratic rights and the independent organisations of the working class, enjoyed at that stage under the French bourgeois regime.
SAV did not argue in 1989 about the ‘self-sufficiency’ of the GDR ‘at any price’. They argued for defence of the planned economy but also for the dismantling of the Stalinist regime – a political revolution – and its replacement with workers’ democracy, the election of all officials, the right of recall, etc. Then, on the basis of workers’ democracy in the GDR, an appeal could be made for the reunification of Germany on socialist and democratic lines. In the wave that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a mixture of euphoria at the overthrow of Stalinism and illusions in the capitalist west, these ideas did not get mass support. Nevertheless, it is important, as on all issues and all occasions, for Marxism to be consistent, to have an eye to the future, when conditions will change.
On the basis of the restoration of capitalism, there would, as we predicted, be inevitable disillusionment in the results of capitalist restoration in East Germany. Opinion polls, even recently, have shown that a majority in East Germany believe that socialism was a ‘good idea badly put into practice’. ‘Socialism’ is clearly a reference to the planned economy. Yet, the SWP’s sister organisation in Germany, fully supported by their International organisation, was swept along and actually supported capitalist reunification. They were on the other side of the barricades from a historical point of view. They wrote:
“A revolutionary transitional (interim) government coming out of a general strike would have had the tasks to completely dissolve the Stasi and the old power apparatus, and negotiate with the Kohl government the conditions for a reunification.”
So, by implication, the SWP in Britain and the IST internationally were in favour of the reunification of Germany in 1989 through “negotiations” with the Kohl (bourgeois) government. But as explained above, Marxists are entirely opposed to bourgeois coalitions or ideas like negotiating with Kohl for capitalist re-unification. [Bürokraten, Intelligenz und Arbeiter – Klassenkämpfe in der Revolution 1989, ibid. See note two at end of this chapter for original German text.]
On this issue, the SWP has shifted towards the right, opportunistically adapting themselves to Lafontaine and Die Linke officialdom. Is this the likely evolution of the SWP, not just in Germany but elsewhere? They are presently at sea because of their false perspectives and policies in the past. In these circumstances, they could become the not-so-left cover for the trade union bureaucracy.
Occasional incantations of ‘revolution’ mask, as German working-class history has shown, the role of former ‘left’ leaders who, in practice, evolved towards the right. Their position on the character of the Labour Party – just the same old party, only further towards the right – shows they are bereft of any idea as to how to mobilise politically the colossal class anger that now exists within the British working class outside the structures of the Labour Party.
But it was not just in 1989 that Linksruck or its predecessor failed to oppose bourgeois coalitions. With the launch of Die Linke in Germany the SWP’s then sister organisation officially dissolved itself to form a new ‘Marxist network’ called ‘Marx21′ which they present as broader and looser.
In the federal state of Hessen, one of the two party chairpersons, Ulrike Eifler, and one state MP, Janine Wissler, are Marx21 supporters and former Linksruck members. In this state, there is the possibility of the formation of a social democratic-green minority government to bring down the hated and reactionary conservative prime minister Roland Koch who has stood for years for sharp attacks on social services and workers’ rights. What position should Die Linke adopt regarding the formation of such a government? In the beginning of the discussion within Die Linke, Ulrike Eifler argued for the election of a ‘red-green’ (SPD-Greens) minority government to bring down Koch but also against any form of long-term toleration of such a government based on a written contract.
Eifler argued for decisions to be taken case by case: are they are in the interests of working class people or not? This was basically the position also adopted by the German Marxists in SAV (CWI section). But under pressure from the SPD and the right wing in Die Linke, Eifler later agreed to support a decision of the Hessen Die Linke congress to accept support of the red-green government for the whole governmental period. Such ‘toleration’ would be the first step for the Left Party in Hessen to follow the dangerous line of the ‘policy of the lesser evil’ which ends up in coalitions with pro-capitalist parties.
What is striking in the policy of the Marx21 leaders in Hessen is how quickly they developed a form of ‘socialist Realpolitik’, not to say parliamentary cretinism. Janine Wissler was quoted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where she called herself “a socialist but not a Trotskyist”. In another interview with HR online (website of Hessen regional radio) she said: “Just as red-green cannot get anything through without us, we cannot get anything through without red-green.” The SPD and Greens have proven many times that they have no problems in implementing cuts together with the conservatives or liberals. This statement reveals the mainly opportunist parliamentarian outlook Wissler has adopted so quickly! Wissler’s preparedness for “pragmatic cooperation” has so impressed one Green MP that he stated in Der Spiegel: “I can imagine somebody like her also at a management consultancy”!
For socialists, particularly Marxists, the way to get “things through”, even in the parliamentary sphere, is not by unprincipled support for parliamentary combinations of capitalist parties but through mobilising the mass pressure of workers and young people.
1. In the original German: Anstatt auf die Eigenständigkeit der DDR um jeden Preis zu pochen, hätten Sozialisten die Aufgabe gehabt, die tatsächlichen Arbeiterkämpfe voranzutreiben. Ein Generalstreik gegen die Stasi und für eine Volksabstimmung zur Wiedervereinigung wäre Anfang Dezember m-glich gewesen.
2. In the original German: Eine aus einem Generalstreik hervorgegangene revolutionäre Übergangsregierung hätte den Auftrag gehabt, die Stasi und den alten Machtapparat vollständige aufzul-sen und mit der Kohl-Regierung die Bedingungen für eine Wiedervereinigung auszuhandeln.
Party & Internal regime
Clash in the IST
The clash between the central leadership of the IST – notably the Socialist Workers Party – and their one-time American ‘section’ the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) also highlighted the deficiencies in their intervention in mass movements. In relation to this, Callinicos stated in 2001:
“We wrote to the ISO leadership: ‘You make concessions to the misconception that the way in which revolutionaries differentiate themselves within united fronts is by “putting the arguments” which set us apart from other forces within the united front. In our experience, it is more often through being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question that we distinguish ourselves and draw new people towards us.'”
He then misuses Marx on the character of a ‘sect’:
“Sometimes differentiation is essential if a revolutionary organization is to survive in an unfavourable political environment. This had been true during the Reagan-Thatcher era in the 1980s where the ISO and the SWP alike had taken refuge in the Marxist tradition as protection against the right-wing climate in society and the collapse of the left. But such a defensive attitude was no longer necessary, as in the second half of 1990s the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end.” [Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left.]
The ISO, in reply to this, belatedly echoed the criticism that we have made of the SWP’s theoretical blunders on the character of the post-Stalinist period:
“But it now can no longer cover for its repeated and systematic failure to accept or understand the 1990s – or the present. The perspective developed by the SWP over the latter half of the 1990s – summed up in the phrase the ‘1930s in slow motion’ – and the political and organisational conclusions that were derived from this view, have been a disaster in Britain and internationally. Rather than face up to this fact, the SWP has zigzagged blindly. Instead of encouraging a debate on these questions which would have strengthened the [IST] tendency, it has pursued a policy that has created split after split. Each split is justified by an immediate tactical turn.”
Writing about the situation in 1997 with the election of Blair, the ISO wrote:
“Of course there is disillusionment and bitterness with Blair, reflected in part by the abysmally low voter turnout. This created the opening for an electoral challenge from the left. But the situation bears little resemblance to the explosion in struggle repeatedly predicted by the SWP leadership in 1997. Then, SWP branches were instructed to hold branch meetings on the June 1936 mass strikes in France that followed the election of the Popular Front government.
There was an explicit prediction of similar developments in Britain. Can anyone seriously argue today that this perspective was correct? More to the point, has the SWP leadership ever bothered to reassess this mistaken perspective?… [The SWP’s] catastrophist perspectives led to a massive decline in its membership. The SWP years ago stopped its claim to have 10,000 members (such figures are no longer given, not even in internal tendency meetings)… The SWP leadership has proven that it is incapable of working with others in the tendency with which it has a shred of disagreement.” [Open letter to the IST, ISO steering committee, 2 July 2001.]
Party rights and factions
The way in which the leadership of the SWP/IST deals with those who are critical of it – particularly in the case of the ISO in the US – and now with those who stayed with George Galloway’s wing of Respect brings into focus the internal regime of the SWP. Organisation flows from politics and not vice versa. A politically self-confident, clear leadership of a party, which enjoys authority on the basis of its political standing in the eyes of its members – rather than on ‘statutes’ – in general, has demonstrated in practice the correctness of its perspectives, tactics and organisational methods to the members. It therefore turns to organisational sanctions only as a last resort. Only when political argument and persuasion fails and there are clear breaches of organisational norms should disciplinary measures be resorted to. While politics is primary in a healthy revolutionary organisation, this does not mean that organisation is secondary or unimportant. Marxist theory is a guide to action: “Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world; the task, however, is to change it.” [Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach.] The internal character of a party or organisation – and particularly the question of democratic rights of the members vis-à-vis the leadership has always been vital in the history of the Marxist movement.
The oft-quoted organisational example of Bolshevism demonstrates this. Lenin was confronted through virtually the entire history of his organisation with groups, tendencies and factions which disputed and argued against his ideas. On occasions, Lenin himself was in a minority. The special circumstances in which the Bolshevik party worked – it was forced to operate throughout most of its existence in the underground – has led to an entirely one-sided view – by the Stalinists, for instance – of Lenin’s ideas on ‘democratic centralism’. These were a continuation and deepening of Marx’s ideas on this issue. Yet they have often been completely misunderstood and interpreted in a one-sided fashion. The existence and then collapse of Stalinist regimes meant that the ideas of ‘democratic centralism’ have been viewed suspiciously, particularly by a new generation emerging into political life. Moreover, the mirror image of Stalinism is also revealed in the bourgeoisified former workers’ organisations such as New Labour in Britain – with a politically repressive and intolerant regime. This new layer of workers could therefore sometimes confuse and conflate the idea of ‘democratic centralism’ with the ‘bureaucratic centralist’ ideas of Stalinism and its offshoots.
This is partly because of wilful distortions by the enemies of Marxism. But, unfortunately, it is also the practices of organisations like the SWP and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia which have reinforced this. The latter organisation, which is anything but ‘Democratic’, also uses top-down, bureaucratic methods against dissent and organised opposition in their ranks. The SWP has displayed the same features in the high-handed rapid expulsion of leading dissenting members over the dispute arising from the split in Respect. But this is not the only example of the bureaucratic approach of the SWP leadership. In 2001, incredibly, they expelled the US ISO en bloc – with a claimed one thousand members – from their international organisation, the IST. Nothing could be more calculated than examples like this to give Marxism and alleged Trotskyism a very bad name – in fact, a taint of Stalinism – of intolerance towards opposition, including summary expulsions.
The roots of the mistaken approach of the SWP on this issue lie in their mistaken notion about how internal democracy works within a Marxist/revolutionary party, the purpose of internal discussion, tendencies, factions, and the relationship between the leadership and the members. And yet the SWP and particularly the IST was set up, allegedly, in an entirely different fashion to other so-called ‘toy Internationals’, which were described by the SWP as ‘undemocratic’ and high-handed. They were referring to organisations like the USFI and the CWI. This was actually a smokescreen to hide the fact that the ‘numerically superior’ SWP dominated the IST from the outset. The claim that the IST was different was effectively debunked by the ISO when it fell out with the SWP in early 2000. The ISO pointed out that the IST “claimed that it was not an international, but a tendency composed of autonomous groups united around the politics of international socialism, [it] has become a mere shadow of its former self. It is now characterised by a high degree of commandeerism and political amateurism.”
They go on to contrast this to the tolerant approach of the ‘hard’ Bolsheviks during a revolution by quoting Trotsky: “The chronicles of the year 1917, the greatest year in the history of the party, is full of intense internal struggles, as also is the history of the first five years after the conquest of power; despite this – [in Russia] not one split, not one major expulsion for political motives…” And yet, both in the case of Respect, and the earlier major international split with the ISO, there were expulsions, as their internal documents show, for political motives.
Expulsion of the ISO
The pretext for the expulsion of the ISO from the IST was the initial ‘expulsion’ of six supporters of the SWP from the ISO. The ISO leadership – their ‘steering committee’ -explained the reasons for this: They “expelled these members [SWP supporters] because they continued to factionalise after they were outvoted at the [party’s] convention”. This approach is entirely wrong from a Marxist point of view but arises precisely from the rigid ‘banning of factions’ outside of the ‘convention’ or what is known in Britain as the pre-conference period. While it is sometimes advisable that factions be wound up once the issues under dispute have been settled or pushed to the sidelines, it nevertheless cannot be achieved by fiat of the leadership from above. In this dispute, both sides were wrong and undemocratic. The ISO, it seems, resorted to expulsions of their pro-SWP members for the crime of ‘factionalising’. But the IST/SWP leadership was a mirror image of the ISO. They summarily expelled a thousand ISO members! Moreover, according to the ISO:
“Ahmed Shawki of the ISO was given only 10 minutes to present the ISO’s response to the motion of expulsion [on 5 July 2001]. SEK [the IST’s Greek section], the group motivating the expulsion with the SWP, did not even bother to send a representative.” [‘The IST voted to expel the ISO on 5 July in London’, at infoshop.org]
The alleged political pretext for the ISO’s exclusion from the international organisation of the SWP was insufficient energy in organising for Seattle and failure to recognise the importance of the anti-globalisation movement! But even if this was the case – which was highly disputed by the ISO – are these sufficient grounds for the expulsion of members from your party? It seems that it is in the galaxy of the SWP. And this is not an exceptional example in the history of the SWP/IS or their international organisation, the IST. In fact, it is a common theme throughout their history, beginning with Cliff himself, who separated party critics from the ranks of the SWP who did not immediately fall into line. The split in the US – including the expulsions – was mirrored in Greece, France, Turkey, South Africa (where they had very small forces) and the earlier virtual disappearance of their organisation in Belgium, with the best members passing over into the ranks of the CWI. These disputes highlighted the false methods, and the unhealthy internal regime, as well as the utter bureaucratic confusion on how an International, from a Trotskyist tradition, should operate.
The ISO, in answer to the SWP’s criticisms of them, undoubtedly scored a bull’s eye when they wrote: “Only one group in the Tendency is exempt from such scrutiny – the SWP itself… Since reports on various groups stopped being issued at Tendency meetings years ago, comrades in various organizations are expected to pass judgement on us – and one another – with virtually no information other than the [Central Committee’s] version of events.” Again, contrast this to the abundance of internal material on disputed issues issued by the CWI in the 1990s. Take just one example; the dispute over the changing of the name of the party from ‘Militant Labour’ to ‘Socialist Party’, mentioned previously. The internal written discussion was circulated not only in Britain but internationally, and not just in our ranks. It was so voluminous that the Australian DSP, who received the documents, complained that they “could not read them all”. This did not stop this organisation from denigrating us – when they fell out politically with us because we criticised their positions on a series of issues – as “undemocratic”!
Undoubtedly, these written and extensive verbal exchanges were excessive but we were prepared to bend over backwards in order to allow a full discussion and demonstrate in practice the correctness or otherwise of our proposals as well as the democratic character of our organisation. A ‘tendency’ was formed – some of whom but not all left our organisation subsequently – but they were not expelled. Others remained and continued to play a vital role in our party. This will not be the case for the SWP in the coming period. They will continue to fracture – not just in Britain but internationally – because of their mistaken belief on how international collaboration – never mind formal international structures – should take place in this period.
Cliff on the Fourth International
Tony Cliff himself criticised Trotsky’s approach to the original development of a new international organisation in 1938 and its programme, the Fourth International. Trotsky urged members of each group to follow and intervene, if necessary, in one another’s internal life. Cliff wrote:
“The problem with Trotsky’s approach was that it is very difficult to draw immediate tactical lessons from one branch of a national organisation for another. How much more difficult is it to do the same on the international scale? Compare this idea of one section intervening in the tactical disputes of another with the practice of the Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky where it was quite uncommon.” [Cliff, Trotsky, vol 3.]
This is wrong from beginning to end and is, moreover, a distortion, wilful or otherwise, not just of Trotsky’s approach but also that of Lenin in the ‘practices’ of the Comintern.. Both were in favour of the maximum ‘involvement’ and discussion of the different important tactical questions by all sections of the Comintern, the rank and file and not just the leadership. Of course, it was ‘uncommon’ mostly for material reasons – shortage of time available for workers with full-time jobs, etc. – for the ranks of the Comintern to intervene with written contributions on the tactical question of the ‘united front’, for instance, as it was applied to Italy and France, where it was a contentious issue. But the members of the newly-formed Communist Parties in those countries did participate, largely through public written material and verbally. But at that stage, the technical resources were not at hand for the full participation of all in the internal life of all sections of the Comintern. But that was the general aim in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, contrary to the impression given by Cliff. Trotsky developed this method with a much smaller organisation in the International Left Opposition in the 1930s. He stressed that it was the right of every member from the leadership down to the rank and file to acquaint themselves with international questions and to intervene, to have their say, whether they were correct or not. Only in this way would real internationalism take hold, a real internationalism vitally needed in the modern era of globalised capitalism.
Cliff’s arguments, and those of the ISO leadership who echo him, reflect some of the arguments of the reformist lefts in Britain and elsewhere on key international questions. For instance, at the time of the Chilean revolutionary movement of 1970-73, some argued in Britain that ‘no-one’ outside Chile had the right to politically intervene with their opinions or to intervene materially in Chile. Yet so crucial were the events in Chile that it was not only the right but the duty of all workers’ organisations to contribute to the debate on the strategy and tactics for victory. Victory for the Chilean workers would have transformed not just the Latin American political landscape but the world as a whole. Similarly, the Chilean and other workers have every right to intervene to criticise, make suggestions, etc, about the tactics to be employed in Britain. Of course, this should not be done in a lecturing manner, as unfortunately do many SWP members in approaching and attempting to bulldoze workers on a picket line, workers on strike, etc. Trotsky was attempting to foster real international participation, thereby raising the level of understanding on vital questions, which may seem ‘remote’ at first glance but can have a relevance to the work elsewhere, including at ‘home’.
His approach towards ‘intervention’ of the members of each national section in the internal life of others had nothing in common with that of Zinoviev. The latter was noted – even under the Comintern where he was the formal head of the organisation – for intervening in a manoeuvrist and bureaucratic fashion. He sanctioned the removal of leaders who had made mistakes instead of adopting Lenin and Trotsky’s policy of criticising mistakes but retaining the leadership who could then hopefully learn and improve. This method of Zinovievism was, unfortunately, taken over by the leaders of the ‘Fourth International’ (now the USFI), particularly after the death of Trotsky himself. They made a number of wrong analyses on perspectives in the very complicated post-second world war period. When this generated opposition, they sought to deal with this through ‘Zinovievist’ methods, seeking to undermine every leadership that they disagreed with politically, rather than convincing by argument and the march of events.
Contrast with CWI
Contrast the party regime of the SWP-IST with the history of the CWI and its handling of internal disputes. We also faced internal political conflicts, something which was inevitable in the changed world situation following the collapse of Stalinism. In fact, we faced splits and defections. The documents relating to these disputes have all been published openly (see Marxism.net). This was done in order to allow anyone in the labour movement, particularly the left and the new generation of socialists, to examine the different standpoints within the CWI and to examine the record of the leadership of the Socialist Party in Britain and our International and those who opposed us on the political issues under dispute.
The only times we have resorted to disciplinary measures – for instance, a case of corruption in the CWI section in Pakistan in 1998 – was when the organisational norms of the party had been grossly violated, not just once, but consistently. A similar case of fraud and corruption arose in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. After careful examination, we separated the CWI from some very dubious former ‘comrades’. The CWI has never expelled any organisation or individual for ‘political differences’. For instance, in the case of Scotland and the dispute with the leadership of our then Scottish organisation, we refused to expel our comrades or even to accede to their request that we agree to an ‘amicable divorce’.
The fairy tale that the CWI in Scotland and internationally opposed the setting up of the SSP has been effectively debunked on a number of occasions in our documents, fully open to public scrutiny. What we did was to oppose vehemently the beginning of the liquidation of a distinct revolutionary organisation – Scottish Militant Labour as it then was – and the resources we had built up over decades into this project. Our warnings that this would subsequently lead to political degeneration inside the broader formation which took shape have been completely borne out by subsequent developments. But never did the CWI leadership – in numerous discussions, both in Britain and internationally – threaten our then Scottish comrades with disciplinary action or expulsion. In fact, we rejected their request for an ‘amicable divorce’, not for ‘altruistic’ or ‘super-democratic’ reasons but because we were convinced that, on the basis of further experience and debate, we would convince the majority of our point of view. Some of those who opposed us in those debates and left the CWI in 2001 returned to the ranks of the CWI. Others, like Tommy Sheridan, collaborate with the CWI in Solidarity. Other ex-CWI comrades have gone back so far politically that they have ended up giving evidence for the notorious anti-working class newspaper baron, Rupert Murdoch, in the court case brought against Tommy Sheridan.
A politically confident leadership always acts in the fashion that the CWI has done. Lenin never resorted to disciplinary measures in the first instance nor did Trotsky advocate such a course in the International Left Opposition in the 1930s, for instance. Gross violations of organisational norms and discipline are another question. But in the case of the dissidents in the SWP – the ISO in the US and those who opposed the leadership over Respect – did not, as far as we can see, either separate themselves from the history of the SWP or violate the existing constitution. There is, in any case, misunderstanding on the issue of ‘factions’. The SWP, for instance, states in its constitution the following:
“If a group of party members disagrees with a specific party policy, or a decision taken by a leading committee of the party, they may form a faction by producing a joint statement signed by at least 30 members of the party. A faction will be given reasonable facilities to argue its point of view and distribute its documents. These must be circulated through the National Office, to ensure that all members have the chance to consider them. Debate continues until the party at a special or annual Conference reaches a decision on the disputed question. Permanent or secret factions are not allowed.”
In this, they have the same position as the DSP in Australia, who also banned factions apart from in a ‘pre-conference period’. Of course, permanent ‘factions’ – on the pattern of the LCR in France – are not a ‘good thing’ in a revolutionary organisation.
Bolsheviks on democratic centralism
They were certainly not the ‘norm’ in the Bolshevik party, with trends, tendencies and even ‘factions’ occasionally developing but then dissolving when the issues under discussion were resolved by the march of events or some left the ranks of the Bolshevik party for either opportunistic or ultra-left reasons. It is true that, at the Tenth Party Congress in the exceptional conditions of civil war, Lenin proposed a temporary ban on factions. However, it was then and remains today, a highly contentious issue. This action of Lenin undoubtedly became a starting point from an ‘organisational’ point of view for Stalin and the rising bureaucracy to legitimise later its lasting and formal ban on all ‘factions’. But the burgeoning Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution utilised this ‘precedent’ – in a completely dishonest and disloyal fashion – to not only ban factions but stamp on all dissent, particularly of the Left Opposition, within the ‘party’. Lenin believed that this temporary measure of ‘banning’ factions would be lifted as soon as the immediate danger of the civil war had passed.
To be sure, the existence of ‘permanent factions’ is not a reflection of a ‘healthy regime’, à la Lenin and Trotsky, as some in the Mandelite USFI believe. In fact, it denotes a lack of confidence in the leadership, an inability once the immediate issues under dispute recede, to then reunite the party. If you are in ‘permanent opposition’, which is what a ‘permanent faction’ means, why then remain within a party? Sometimes, it is better for a separation to take place in order that different ideas, programmes and tactics can be tested out before audiences of workers and young people. This, of course, then presupposes collaboration, an element of the united front discussed previously, is employed by separate organisations. Trotsky pointed out that the French social democracy was quite willing to tolerate tame ‘permanent factions’ because it gave the false impression that it was ‘democratic’. However, as soon as a serious organised political oppositional current developed from the left, it was invariably shown the door.
The same applies to the experience of Militant in the Labour Party in Britain. We were tolerated while we were the ‘door knockers’, the canvassers in elections, the ‘carriers of wood and hewers of coal’. But once we began to challenge politically for councillors and MPs, and with greater and greater importance at all levels of the Labour Party, summary expulsion – beginning with the five members of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983 – was resorted to. All of this means that while ‘permanent factions’ may be undesirable, at the same time they cannot be ‘prohibited’, either in a rigid ‘constitution’ or by the edict of an ‘infallible’ leadership.
We have sought to demonstrate in this analysis of the past and present policies of the Socialist Workers Party, that unless they change they will be found wanting in the new period we are entering, both in Britain and internationally. They presently face a serious crisis but this does not mean that they are likely to completely ‘disappear’.
Possessing as it does an apparatus and members, it will, in all probability continue in existence. Nevertheless, it has been considerably weakened and its reputation has been further tarnished amongst politically aware left workers.
Many SWP members and supporters have, in the past, ‘voted with their feet’, a small number to join other organisations, the vast majority falling into inactivity.
In a period of intense radicalisation, and, for want of an alternative, organisations and parties even with incorrect policies can grow to some extent. But history also shows that they will inevitably hit the buffers at a certain stage. In ‘organic’ periods of economic growth and relative social quiescence, mistakes in programme, particularly for a small organisation, can go unpunished. But in periods of social and political convulsions, sharp changes in the situation, deficiencies are ruthlessly exposed.
History has seen many organisations, some considerably larger than the SWP, either so weakened by events that they become of marginal importance or, in some cases, completely disappear.
Our purpose has been to warn that, in this period of political reawakening, the policies and method they have pursued up to now will not only weaken them but harm the general struggles of the left in rebuilding the forces of the labour movement and socialism.
We, for our part, intend to continue to pursue a policy of debate, dialogue and discussion with genuine left organisations as well as building and strengthening the Socialist Party.
This is a precondition for rearming the labour movement for the battles to come. We are also prepared to unify our forces in practice with all genuine Marxist organisations on an agreed, principled basis.
We will not, however, jeopardise the work of our members or supporters that we have built up in unprincipled amalgamations in which the approach of organisations differ so widely as to produce paralysis.
This would only prepare the basis for further splits and schisms at a later stage. However, what we can do today is to bloc with genuine socialist and Marxist forces with their roots in the working class and the labour movement in the task of preparing the basis for a new, mass left party in Britain.
We have argued this case for over a decade and will continue to do this in the present period. We appeal to all those who have read and agree with our analysis and programme to join the ranks of the Socialist Party and the CWI. A strong Marxist left is vital, providing the ideological backbone to any new formation that will arise in Britain.