'Respect' and independent working-class politics

Submitted by Anon on 11 December, 2006 - 12:08

By Tom Unterrainer, Nottingham City NUT

"THE resurgence of radicalism in the anti-capitalist movement and the trade unions has provoked an important debate cross the left internationally. The issue is this: what kind of party should socialists build? Should it be a broad socialist party or a revolutionary organisation? ... the tactics of any socialist organisation have to rest on an understanding of the phases through which the class struggle passes".1

It's often comforting to suppose that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) acts in a totally un-theorised, opportunistic way. That they make no effort to publicly justify or explain their latest twist and turn - simply adjusting organisational structures to fit the overall mission to "build the party". This is not the case. Just as Alice had to believe ten impossible things before breakfast, SWP cadre are treated to a quarterly digest of Carrollian "Marxism" in the pages of International Socialism and various pamphlets. For consistent socialists who remain baffled at the SWP's bare faced abandonment of working class politics or for those who maintain the illusion that "Respect" is some legitimate expression of working class opposition to capitalism, a quick tour of the theoretical underpinnings and political consequences the project is instructive.

According to the SWP, British capitalism is in a fourth, distinct phase of post World War II history. The predecessor phases were (i) post-war boom and stability, (ii) "radicalism and intensifying class struggle"2 from the late 60s to mid-70s and (iii) the election of Thatcher and a "down-turn" in class struggle. We're now in a phase characterised by a "revival in consciousness and combativity, discernable from the mid-1990s and unmistakeable since the Seattle demonstration in 1999" 3. If you're prepared to swallow the white-washing of the miners' strike and ignore other features of working-class activity during the Thatcher period, this can read as a convincing summary of the last sixty years. But there's a problem you see: despite the new found combativity, the SWP is faced with the unfortunate fact that the labour movement has been adversely affected by the experience of a decade of defeats.

"The pattern of industrial disputes over the past few years has been shaped by both the new militancy and a lack of confidence which is the product of years of defeat. So on the one hand we have seen explosions of anger, some of which has generalised widespread support inside the working class - Rover and the firefighters' dispute being two obvious examples. This has been followed by periods of relative quiet". 4 The trade union movement is neither in a "downswing or a upswing". 5 Compare to this the explosions of sustained anger and activity produced by the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and the further political degeneration of the Labour Party. There's a significant gap between the two.

The SWP had taken note of the "long decline of Labourism" before the Afghan and Iraq wars. After many years of passively calling for votes for Labour whilst taking no part in the political battles inside the party itself, the SWP joined the Socialist Alliance (SA) in 2000.

Along with supporters of Solidarity and other sections of the revolutionary left in England and Wales, the SWP worked within the Socialist Alliance to present a political alternative to Labour in the 2001 General Election. On an explicitly socialist and working class platform - "People Before Profit" - SA candidates were fielded in 98 constituencies and won an average vote of 1.62%.

The 2001 campaign saw many hundreds of activists on the streets arguing for working class politics and socialism in opposition to Blair and with very limited resources. This was good work. However, whilst making a significant impact on all sections of the left, organised and "independent", the campaign picked up average votes comparable to any half-decent socialist campaign.

The months following the 2001 election saw terrorist attacks on the US and war against Afghanistan. This opened up wide vistas of organised opposition to Blair in the form of the anti-war "movement" and created new problems from the SWP's perspective. The SA became an immediate problem - it stood in the way of the all important drive to "build the revolutionary party" in times of struggle and became an embarrassing falsification of elements of the "fourth period" analysis.

"Given the scale of the anti-war movement in Britain and the leading role played in it by the SWP, this made the question of developing a credible political alternative to New Labour very urgent ... the SA failed to realise its full potential. From a strategic point of view, a mass socialist party can only develop in Britain if it succeeds in breaking away substantial sections of Labour's base, which, despite its decay, still reaches deep into working class organisations and communities. The point of the SA was to brigade together the sane [!] elements of the far left into a united front (of a new kind) that could appeal directly to, and win over significant forces from a Labourist background ... It has to be said that, with some local and individual exceptions this strategy didn't work".6 The SWP concluded that organising consistent socialists of all kinds on the basis of working class politics could not hope to appeal to large numbers of ex-Labour voters. The 2001 election and the enduring, historic appeal of Labour to the mass of voting workers proved their point - the "fourth period" analysis backed up by new explosions of anger over the war demanded a new course. The new course didn't include promoting the SA during demonstrations or attempting to orientate it on a socialist basis to the questions raised by the anti-war campaign, the SWP had bigger fish to fry.

"What offered the opportunity to break out of this impasse was the anti-war movement. The war didn't split the Labour Party, but it did in the shape of the Stop the War Coalition, produce new ways of organising and acting together".7 What did the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) stand for and what "new ways of organising and acting together" did it open up? We're certainly not talking about socialist politics or democratic organisational practices. The StWC was launched in the weeks following the attacks of 11 September 2001. Supporters of Solidarity argued for the group to adopt a position critical of terrorist attacks, the ultra-reactionary nature of the Taliban and al-Qaeda whilst maintaining steadfast opposition to imperialist war. To ignore this aspect of the political situation would be an abandonment of the socialist ideas of liberty, democracy and solidarity with those oppressed by such vicious regimes. This is what the SWP and the majority at the conference decided to do, a decision that heralded further - sadly predictable - degenerations in politics.

That initial decision laid the basis for the refusal to raise criticism of Saddam Hussein's murderous Ba'athist regime in Iraq and allowed for the accommodation of all types of reactionaries in seemingly "progressive" causes. The foundation on which the SWP was to build it's alternative to the SA - Respect - was from the outset a swamp of knee-jerk inti-imperialism, accommodation to reactionary religious organisations (in particular the Muslim Association of Britain - MAB - the British offshoot of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) and populism at any cost.

The final plank in the plan came when George Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party for being what the SWP has described as a "principled anti-imperialist".8 Galloway represented the key element required for the SWP to claim that their new electoral lash-up represented a political form superior to the SA - they moved to close down the SA for good.

In opposing Respect at the Socialist Alliance national conference in early 2004, Solidarity supporters put forward a motion exposing the regressive step that the new organisation represented in terms of democratic function and politics. Solidarity exposed the abandonment of ideas such as common ownership, workers' control, workers' representatives on a workers' wage and democratic organisational function - all of these were missing from the new platform. The ideas of independent working class politics were thrown out of the window. On the day, socialist ideas lost.

Since 2004 the SA has collapsed into various splinter groups and politics discussed elsewhere in this supplement.

Those of us who refused to join Respect and who continue to criticise its reactionary politics have been variously denounced as "sectarians ... Zionists ... pro-imperialist" 9 - all because we maintain the centrality of working-class politics. But what has Respect achieved in the few years since its inception? The European elections were a hugely expensive and electorally disastrous endeavour but they did serve a profile raising function for the media-obsessed Galloway and provided the opportunity for a firmer lash-up with the religious reactionaries and wider layers of the politically disenfranchised Muslim community. The General Elections in 2005 saw the victory of Galloway over the sitting Blairite MP Oona King in Bethnal Green, by making direct communalist appeals to the large Muslim population in that constituency. The local elections this year saw Respect win a majority on Tower Hamlets council on the same basis.

Respect has failed to convince large numbers of those many hundreds of thousands who protested against the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. For the SWP, this is the most significant of problems but it hasn't stopped them peddling their politics in the trade unions.

For all the political opportunism and outright abandonment of socialist politics they maintain the belief that they're part of a project to fulfil the expectations outlined in the "fourth period" analysis. The struggle is still to match the generalised "combativity" with the infant "new militancy and lack of confidence" in the trade unions.

What route do they choose to match these two together? Rank-and-file organisation? A critical stance to the backward leadership over pensions, NHS and school privatisation and all the other attacks mounted on the working class? No.

This is exposed most clearly at the Respect controlled "Organising for Fighting Unions" conference in November 2006 and in how the SWP operates in the trade union left. The conference produced a document entitled the "Workers' Charter" - a charter to the right of current TUC policy - and the constant refrain in from SWP/Respect union activists is that we should be the "best fighters for the leaderships strategy" or that we should "wait and see what the leadership does". All this is coupled together with a continuing insistence that the best way to get members active is to talk about ... the 'war'.

The SWP strategy is a million miles away from independent working-class, socialist politics. In theory we see a grand scheme for moving the working class into all out combat with the capitalist state but in practice all they deliver is a timid trade union perspective and outright reactionary electoral platforms. What some "socialists" are prepared to jettison in a misjudged attempt for the "big-time", others - including supporters of Solidarity - will use as the basis for re-orientating and re-building the genuine, socialist left.

[1] John Rees, 'The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united
front', International Socialism 97
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Martin Smith, The Awkward Squad, SWP
[5] Martin Smith, 'Politics and the struggle', International Socialism 105
[6] Alex Callinicos, The European radical left tested electorally, IST
Discussion Bulletin, no 5, July 2004
[7] Ibid
[8] The Trial: How New Labour purged George Galloway, Bookmarks Publications, November 2003
[9] Callinicos, Ibid

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